'Agent Carter': Espionage, drama, and more -- why we're excited about ABC's new series

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Image Credit: Katrin Marchinowski/ABC

Stand back, world – Marvel is taking over the universe.

On the heels of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s renewal for a second season last night, ABC also announced the official pick-up of Agent Carter: a series centered around the popular Captain America character played by Hayley Atwell, based on the one-shot of the same name first released on the Iron Man 3 DVD last year.

True to form, Marvel is keeping the details of the project under tight lock and key. But until we can confirm more at ABC’s Upfront presentation next week, here’s what we do know: the series will most likely be a short order (13 episodes or less) that would air as a “bridge” during the hiatus period of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. It will be set in 1946, with Peggy working for the SSR (Strategic Scientific Reserve) while also fielding covert missions for Howard Stark during the earliest days of S.H.I.E.L.D. (No word on specific casting, but it’s rumored that Dominic Cooper will be a recurring guest star.) It will focus on Peggy’s role as a woman in a post WWII world, when the men are returning from war and she is finding herself highly marginalized, while attempting to deal with the aftermath of her love, Steve Rogers. Should the series be successful, it will most likely continue as a short order, similar to the Mad Men model of moving forward a year or two in time with each new season (likely ending or leading up to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s complete formation.)

So why should we be excited about Agent Carter? (Aside from the obvious answer of getting to watch the amazingly talented Hayley Atwell own our TV screens once a week.) A female protagonist, a period setting, and an open field of storytelling are only some of the qualities that the series offers, all of which promise to help make it successful. In the wake of our enthusiasm, we break them down below. [WARNING: Slight spoilers for Captain America: The Winter Soldier to follow.]

Hayley Atwell

Perhaps we should just cut to the chase and address the main reason behind our excitement: leading lady Hayley Atwell. Atwell’s Peggy Carter became a break-out character after the first Captain America — a strong, capable female officer/superspy who, when infused with Atwell’s trademark emotional charm, resonated strongly with viewers on both sides of the gender scale. She not only proved that she could hold her own among a mostly-male driven ensemble that included Chris Evans, Sebastian Stan and Tommy Lee Jones, but her portrayal of a woman who wasn’t afraid to move forward nor let herself become defined by her losses made her an instant fan favorite across the board.

Agent Carter’s straight-to-series order means that although a pilot was written, there wasn’t anything specifically filmed to present to the network before securing a green light. It’s safe to say that the Agent Carter one-shot, as well as the character’s presence in both Captain America movies, was more than convincing. Still, that alone should signify the strength of the character, and how much the network believes that there is a strong enough storyline to build a series on — and how much faith they have in Atwell as a female lead, when it’s been years since a woman has headlined a live-action project from either Marvel or DC.

Plot Possibilities

Like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Carter will bridge the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the television world. Unlike Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., however, the story of Agent Carter is not contingent on specific MCU events that have yet to happen. Whereas S.H.I.E.L.D. couldn’t really pick up a bulk of its story until after Captain America: Winter Soldier, that’s something Agent Carter won’t have to worry about: its time period, and the major events that it centers around, have already been well-established. That means the writers and showrunners have pretty much free reign to do what they want in terms of plot development and character development. And that’s a door that is wide open.

Peggy Carter is obviously not the first Marvel character to make its way to the small screen — that honor goes to Clark Gregg’s Phil Coulson, who currently headlines Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. But while part of the fun of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been exploring Coulson’s personality in a way we haven’t been able to do outside of the Marvel films, Peggy Carter is already an established character. We know about her life during Captain America, and thanks to Winter Soldier, we even know where she ended up. But the years of her life in between when Steve Rogers went into the ice, and when she started working for the SSR, and when she was an old woman in a nursing home, leave much to be explored. Part of the reason fans were so ecstatic about the debut of the Agent Carter one-shot was because it showed a hint of that exploration: this was what Peggy was doing with her life, and this was how she was reacting. If a fifteen-minute short can make that much of an impact by showing just a sliver, a series of episodes should be able to make that same impact — if not a bigger one.

A Well-Oiled Machine

If you’re familiar with the material that you’re producing, and if you’re familiar with the background behind it, you tend to create pieces that resonate with your audience. Marvel understands this, and it’s why Jon Favreau directed two Iron Man movies (and continues to consult on them.) It’s why Joss Whedon is directing the second Avengers film. It’s why Anthony and Joe Russo are returning for Captain America 3. While Agent Carter will be helmed by two females outside of the Marvel universe (Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters, showrunners on Resurrection), the pilot script was written by Winter Soldier scribes Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus. And with production by Marvel Head of Television Jeph Loeb, who has spent the past year helping to bring Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to life, it’s clear that the series has the potential create a show that will cater to what fans want to see.

The 1940s

Let’s be honest: is there a better setting than record players, smoky lounges and the jaunty pop music of The Andrews Sisters? We know that shows set in certain time periods of ye olden days can be successful (hello, Mad Men) and the fact that Agent Carter can hinge itself on that “idealistic” setting lends itself perfectly to the type of drama that the show should be. Sure, there will probably be big explosions and high octane situations — this is television, after all, and there are things called ratings and sweeps. But setting Agent Carter during this specific point in history means that this series should also be able to ground itself in the quietly strong roots of espionage and detective work. We saw it work in Winter Soldier, where we were able to take the characters of Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanov and place them against a background that was less mythological and more reality-grounded. And if the Agent Carter short is any indication, there’s a lot to be explored on that front.

S.H.I.E.L.D. (or should we say, Hydra)

S.H.I.E.L.D. may have been founded on pure intentions, but we know now that Hydra didn’t die with the Red Skull, that Zola was kept alive to help infiltrate the organization, and that Hydra was working underwraps for years, slowly plotting their domination in events that came to a head during Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Creating a series that focuses on the start of S.H.I.E.L.D. after we know what was going on underneath the surface for so many years is deliciously interesting and offers the series plenty of opportunities.

For one, it means the potential for new and familiar bad guys (could we be seeing the return of Zola? What about other Hydra baddies from the comics, such as Baron Wolfgang von Strucker?) For another, it means we could see more of the Howling Commandos, who definitely have the potential to lend themselves to Agent Carter’s plotlines depending on what stories the series chooses to tell. (We already know that in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Trip’s grandfather was a Howling Commando, which could be a fun connection.) And it means that we could possibly even see a bit of what happened to Bucky Barnes during his years of Hydra capture, since it fits with the timing. If there’s anything that we’ve learned from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., it’s that Marvel does love to delve into the comics and bring out relevant characters when they can, regardless of what era they appeared in, and there’s a wealth of both good guys and bad guys that can be brought out to play.

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