Remakes of big screen movies have been a staple of prime-time television but spinoffs are rare.
"Avengers" director and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" writer/executive producer Joss Whedon is shepherding an "Avengers" spinoff to ABC's prime-time schedule.
"Marvel's Agents of SHIELD" (8 p.m. Tuesday, WTAE) is a terrifically entertaining action-adventure hour that pays dividends for "Avengers" fanboys/girls but isn't so insular that the uninitiated will be baffled.
And "SHIELD" is lighter, funnier and more character driven than "Avengers."
This one-hour drama brings back "Avengers" character Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg, "The New Adventures of Old Christine"), who appeared to die in the film.
His moment of return is gloriously dramatic but also goofy and paves the way for a fun, winking line of dialogue that is a specialty of Mr. Whedon, who wrote the pilot script with his brother Jed Whedon ("Spartacus") and Jed's wife, Maurissa Tancharoen ("Dollhouse").
"Agents of SHIELD" is set just after the battle of New York in "The Avengers" when the existence of superheroes and aliens first became public knowledge. Coulson assembles agents from the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division, including combat and espionage expert Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), pilot and martial artist Melinda May (former Pittsburgher Ming-Na Wen, "ER"), engineer Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker, "The Fades") and biochemist Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge). In the premiere episode Coulson also recruits computer hacker Skye (Chloe Bennet, "Nashville").
Unlike in "The Avengers," the "Agents of SHIELD" characters are not superheroes, they're just well-trained human agents charged with tracking down undocumented citizens with secret super powers.
As the pilot begins, unemployed Michael Peterson (guest star J. August Richards, "Angel") is shopping with his son when he sees a building explode and hurries to save anyone who might be trapped inside. Turns out, Peterson is a superhero whose actions are captured by cell phone cameras.
From there the story switches to a caper in Paris where Ward tries to steal some information from the baddie group Rising Tide. Viewers aren't told much about this criminal organization, which is perhaps a known quantity to comic book readers. For the rest of us, the introduction of Rising Tide is a bit of head-scratcher but viewers willing to just accept that they're the enemy -- don't ask too many questions! -- will be fine.
Similarly, the relationships among "SHIELD" team members come off as murky and undefined. Leo and Jemma seem to be tied at the hip. Are they siblings? Dating? Best buds? The pilot doesn't explain their closeness but presumably future episodes will.
After the Paris tangent, Ward is brought to SHIELD headquarters by Agent Maria Hill (guest star Cobie Smulders, "How I Met Your Mother"), who explains the organization's purpose to Ward and viewers: "We're the line between the world and the much weirder world. We protect people from things they aren't ready to hear, and when we can't do that, we keep them safe."
Coulson's re-introduction comes with hints of an underlying mythology arc for the series that bodes well for a strong emphasis on the characters. There are also suggestions that Agent May, who is reluctant to forsake a desk job for Coulson's team, has a tortured past history with SHIELD.
Mr. Gregg sets just the right tone for the series with his easily amused, everyman character. He's the audience's entry point, not just because he's familiar from several big screen Marvel movies, but also because he's the most down-to-earth character even when positioned as the boss.
"Agents of SHIELD" should be the closest the Fall 2013 TV season gets to a sure hit but there's one potential complicating factor: It's a show about a team of co-workers that's going up against CBS's "NCIS," the No. 1 scripted drama in all of prime time that is also about a team of co-workers.
With "NCIS" aging and losing one of its key players -- actress Cote de Pablo departs after the first two episodes of the new season -- perhaps the time is right for the rise of "SHIELD."tvradio
Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.