Of all the new fall shows, ABC’s “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” was the most anticipated and continues to be among the most closely monitored by critics, columnists and Industry bloggers. Many people who are not ABC executives want this show to succeed: Avengers fans, Joss Whedon fans, Clark Gregg fans and parents clinging to that quaint old notion of family viewing. I do too.
To paraphrase the immortal Bonnie Tyler song, I need a hero.
After years of emotionally crippled, morally conflicted, downward-spiraling and/or angrily brilliant men taking the lead in so many dramas big and small, American TV needs a hero who is neither super, reluctant nor anti. And Gregg’s Agent Phil Coulson is just that.
Brimming with integrity, loyalty and quiet competence, Coulson is as retro as Captain America. He’s an old-fashioned leading man undamaged, at least visibly, by heartbreak, addiction, diagnosable behavioral issues or childhood trauma.
He doesn’t whine or sulk or gaze at the camera with mad eyes and hollow cheeks. He shaves. Every day. He drives a James Bondian sports car, gives people a second chance and speaks in declarative sentences that are stern but not scary. He is self-deprecating in a pre-ironic, which is to say sincere, way.
It’s difficult not to want to run away with him.
That he may be dead, robotic or mostly a computer chip is certainly a possibility but beside the point. This is what Agent Coulson was like before he was skewered by Loki during the Battle of New York, and why he went from providing a bit of comic relief in “Iron Man,” to all but stealing “The Avengers,” to now having his own TV show.
Coulson provides an antidote to all the supercilious masculinity cluttering up our screens. He is first and foremost an adult, a man among a swarm of perpetual adolescents (including all those superheroes) who may get the job done but not without a lot of immoral and deeply self-justified rule-breaking.
The only other new character showing signs of the same commendable attributes is “Sleepy Hollow’s” Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison), and he’s more than 200 years old. Also British. Which makes sense. Somewhere along the line, Americans started outsourcing adult masculinity.
As the boomers hit middle age and Fridays went casual, immature became the new interesting in American film and on American TV. When “Mad Men” debuted, part of its initial charm was the simple sight of men in white shirts and ties, men who looked like men. Don Draper and company turned out to be far from heroic, or even mature, but at least they looked the part.
Most other male stars dutifully began dressing down — and duressing up. They filter the demand for puer aeternus through the boyish (Richard Castle, Seeley Booth, Patrick Jane), the brutal (“Game of Thrones,” “Grimm,” “Revolution”), the broken (Adrian Monk, Gregory House, Sherlock Holmes [American edition] and the narcissistically amoral (Dexter Morgan, Walter White, pretty much every lead of an FX show).
Some female leads were similarly beset by our need for chronic imperfection — “Homeland’s” Carrie Mathison is bipolar — but being a “woman in a man’s job” (i.e., too tough to surrender to love) is often obstacle enough.
Male heroes, on the other hand, went snarky or sad, their gifts became burdens, their motivations unclear. They were, to a certain extent, the country’s tattered psyche writ large. In a world crisscrossed by Ponzi schemes, anything that resembled an actual moral code seemed archaic and naive. Better to be guided by the squishy ethics of your gut. Indeed, the only admitted “white hat” on TV belongs to “Scandal’s” Olivia Pope, a D.C. “fixer” whose brand of personal justice includes rigging an election and covering up state-sanctioned murder.
So if we were looking for a few good Men we could to stick to old standbys — “Law and Order” and “NCIS” — or British television. There the men still wear button-down shirts, own really great coats and rarely feel sorry for themselves. “Downton Abbey,” “Luther,” “The Hour,” “Sherlock” (British edition), “Ripper Street” and “Foyle’s War” revolve around characters disparate and complicated but united in one thing: They’re grown-ups.
Of them all, “Foyle’s War” may be the best example of what’s missing on American television (and why we can only pray, as a nation, that rumors suggesting this past season was its last are false).
Christopher Foyle (Michael Kitchen) is a detective in a small coastal town during WWII, holding the line between morality and corruption on the home front. Kitchen is not a big man, even his female costars often tower over him, and there are few scenes in which Foyle exerts himself physically, much less violently.
A widower with a grown son, Foyle has a young female driver, and there is never a moment of romantic, much less sexual, possibility. He does not carry a gun, respects authority and often allows himself to be dressed down in public without a word of protest. He says little, in fact, for a lead player, saving his speeches for when he brings the hammer down.
Nonetheless, Christopher Foyle is always the most powerful man in the room. Men admire and women swoon for a short, soft-spoken retirement-aged detective who doesn’t like to drive but can always be counted on to do the right thing. Because he believes people should always do the right thing.
Simple moral math but increasingly rare on television.
And that’s why characters like Coulson and Crane matter so much, despite their CG ‘n’ high-concept surroundings. Joe Friday may be laughably outdated and even über-parent Cliff Huxtable more wish than reality, but there is always a space, a pretty big space, in the American narrative for the Good Guys. The ones who leave the sexual preening and internal angst to the teens and twentysomethings, who willingly don the uniform and responsibility of adulthood and just get on with the job.
Once upon a time they seemed boring. Now they’re the stuff of myth.