It's been a whirlwind few years for Agent Peggy Carter. Plucked from comics obscurity to be the love interest in 2011's Captain America: The First Avenger, the character became a Tumblr mainstay due mostly to the charisma of actress Hayley Atwell. That gave way to a Marvel Studios "one-shot" film in which the pre-S.H.I.E.L.D. agent pushed back against he misogynist politics of the postwar era, and that in turn has now birthed an eight-episode TV series with essentially the same premise. The question rolling into last night's back-to-back premiere episodes was whether Marvel's Agent Carter would offer something more than its 10-minute predecessor.
The drama opened with a pretty direct recitation of the original short's premise, as current (1946 current, mind you) Strategic Science Reserve chief Agent Roger Dooley uses the occasion of a red alert to put Peggy on the phones. She quickly rebuffs him and takes a place at the boys' table, establishing the pattern that will repeat again and again throughout the show. That's not a dig, either (at least not yet): Atwell's super-spy confidence elicits cheers and laughs in equal measure every time one of the men in her unit tries to put her in her supposed place. It doesn't hurt that the men in the show, from Boardwalk Empire alum Shea Whigham as Dooley to former teen heartthrob Chad Michael Murray as the surprisingly dashing Jack Thompson, all play their parts like solid supporting actors should. It's Peggy's show, and they're just there to make her look good.
And it doesn't take long for Carter to take over. Sought out by newly minted Public Enemy #1 Howard Stark (a returning Dominic Cooper, who does a pitch-perfect period-piece take on Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony), the agent is given a competing mission to the men in her office: While they are seeking Stark on charges that he sold military weapons to enemies of the United States, she's on a quest to clear him first by tracking down the fence pawning off his latest bomb-making super-formula. As Stark runs for his life, he leaves behind his butler Edwin Jarvis (James D'Arcy doing a great impersonation of Paul Bettany's robo-voice), but Peggy balks at his help – or the help of any man.
From there, the show falls into the comfortable rhythms of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With a pilot script by Captain America screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the series hits all the grace notes you'd expect from a Marvel Studios production: the off-color humor that bubbles up every 10 minutes (the men are uncomfortable when she mentions her period!), the ultra-competence of its hero (Atwell's frequent use of American accents in undercover work is a treat) and a string of legitimately fun twists on the action genre (the villains selling Stark's tech are larynx-free assassins who speak only through robotic voice boxes and communicate by ghostly typewriters).
The plot mechanics lean on these pleasures but don't challenge them much. Agent Carter is always one step ahead of the meatheads she works with on the trail of the the Stark formula that's made a milk truck of super napalm. But as she moonlights through one life-threatening situation after another and ultimately gets her sweet-as-pie roommate killed as collateral damage, Peggy starts to feel the emotional strain of going solo much worse than her frequent lamentations over the loss of Steve Rogers. Balancing these feelings out are the bit too-proper sidekick Jarvis, the likable waitress determined to be her best friend Angie and the one good man at the S.S.R./wounded war hero Agent Sousa. All three of these characters leave an impression, but none of them quite stands out as fan-favorite material yet.
Beyond that, the first two episodes hum along like any other pleasant ABC action drama. The super-weapon on the loose is powered by Vita Radiation (the same tech that brought Captain America to life). The villains who want it the most work for a mysterious organization called Leviathan (another Marvel TV appropriation of Jonathan Hickman's Secret Warriors comic). And as Peggy tracks down one Leviathan defector and comes closer to understanding who their current crop of robo-voiced killers are, she's assaulted at every step by pigheaded bosses, club owners and businessmen.
It would all play a little rote if it weren't for two things: One, Atwell remains an absolute charm in the part, and it rarely gets old watching her slap hands away on her quest to be the world's top secret agent; and two, the fact that Agent Carter has just eight episodes on the order gives the show a momentum that its present-day counterpart Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has often lacked. When the second episode ends with the men of the S.S.R. finding evidence that it's Stark's people who have been mixing it up with the Leviathan heavies, we know a reckoning is coming soon. By the time it arrives, let's hope the producers have let the show move past its one-note setup and into an adventure worthy of their lead.