Double-Edged S.H.I.E.L.D.

This spin-off has no Thor but lots to say about secrets

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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Bob D'Amico / ABC/Getty Images; Whedon: Jason Kempin / Getty Images

In a world--to steal a phrase from blockbuster-movie trailers--where superheroes body-slam aliens in Manhattan, do you feel protected or terrified? In a world plagued by dastardly demigods, are you O.K. with giving unlimited power to omniscient, secretive superspies who are--probably, as far as you know--the good guys keeping you safe?

These are a couple of the questions that throb like a radioactive spider bite within the slick entertainment of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Co-created by Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and spun off from his colossal 2012 movie The Avengers, it's unsurprisingly the most anticipated TV drama this fall. What is surprising is that it's also, unintentionally, fall's most topical drama about surveillance, government secrecy and authoritarian overreach.

S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC, premieres Sept. 24) picks up after The Avengers' climactic Battle of New York. Captain America and crew don't appear in the series, which focuses on the movie's shadowy Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division, made up of superspies who keep the peace behind the scenes.

Not everyone, it turns out, is jazzed by the discovery of superbeings capable of rezoning chunks of midtown with their fists or that of S.H.I.E.L.D., a near omniscient transglobal group that kept super-phenomena hidden for decades. ("We protect people from news they aren't ready to hear," one agent puts it.) Rising Tide, an anti-S.H.I.E.L.D. hacktivist group, is out to expose its classified secrets and "rise against those who shield us from the truth" (pun clearly intended). The pilot also raises the Occupyesque idea that the existence of superheroes might make the less-than-super rest of us--the 99.999%--feel more marginalized. "The rest of us, what are we?" one civilian rails. "They're giants. We're what they step on."

S.H.I.E.L.D.'s pilot was written and shot well before the revelations from Edward Snowden about National Security Agency surveillance. In light of those, says Whedon, "it's definitely gotten way more topical." But, he adds, "we knew before any of the [NSA] stuff that we were basically dealing with a young, individualistic, ragtag group of"--his voice deepens to become mock-menacing--"faceless bureaucrats who know everything about you." S.H.I.E.L.D. delivers action but also a conversation about the price of security.

Whedon, who revealed high school as a Hellmouth in Buffy, has made the consequences of technology a theme in his series before. His space opera Firefly was about the aftermath of a failed rebellion against a corporate-authoritarian government; his sci-fi drama Dollhouse was set in a dystopian future in which people's minds could be rewritten to make them into subservient, mutable "dolls."

S.H.I.E.L.D. is a lighter story, with a trickier line to walk. It has to create its identity while serving a billion-dollar movie franchise. (Whedon is directing The Avengers: Age of Ultron for 2015, which means that if the series lasts two seasons, it represents "44 chances to make The Avengers less special.") It's trying to complicate its heroes while not alienating the fan base. This is the balance, really, between cult Joss, the quirky TV rebel who subverts pulp conventions, and blockbuster Joss, the hit-movie populist who loves pulp's delicious pulpiness.

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