Includes some SPOILERS, so watch out.
Coulson is BACK! Hardly a surprise as we've been watching him in sneak previews all Summer, but getting that business out of the way quickly was a smart choice. Even better, there's more to the story… and even Coulson doesn't know it. Aside from a strong scene with J. August Richardson in the third act, this backhanded reveal was the best moment of the pilot to me. I'm not sold on Ron Glass as the SHIELD medical tech, but his statement and Maria Hill's response set up serious foreshadowing. Smart money is on Coulson as LMD, but there was that oft-repeated statement about Tahiti being a "magical" place. Could that be an allusion to Dr. Strange ?
Easter Egg mentions… Project Pegasus? Really? Way to dig through the crates, guys… Erskine, Super Soldier serum, New Mexico (Thor), Extremis, B-roll loops of Iron Man and the Hulk… This universe is fully integrated with the movies. ALL the movies. On the topic of those loops however… You had HOURS of footage you could have used. Did we really need to see those same few seconds OVER AND OVER again during the agent briefing?
The introduction of Agent Ward. Whatever can be said about the rest of his performance, the INTRO of Agent Ward was aggressive and cool. Very "Bourne Identity" in a good way.
Lola is a flying car! Yeah, yeah not a surprise, but a very satisfying nod to the comics. Also, the SHIELD super plane is a nice way to conserve Helicarrier budget. Kudos, Whedons!
Skye. I guess Whedon's Buffy days have enamored him of the notion of precocious supergirls in dangerous situations. As cute as Skye is, I can't help thinking she's horribly miscast. The centipede "doctor" was playing it straight and was arguably a better choice. Still, she had some moments that revealed the potential for depth, but the reverse interrogation scene was a low point for Chloe Bennett's Skye AND Brett Dalton's Agent Ward. Personally, I'd prefer something closer to Angelina Jolie in "Hackers," but that's just me.
Character performances. IMHO, most of the core actors are performing as though they're in a superhero sitcom as opposed to BEING characters who inhabit a superhero-filled universe. Tony Stark was a joker, but most of the other films play it pretty realistically (albeit in films that feature entirely incredible events). A notable exception is Ming Na Wen as Melinda May. Maria Hill was fine (in her cameo); but, Clark Gregg as Coulson was playing it a bit broadly comic (until that 3rd act scene) for my tastes. That may tie into his resurrection, so I'll let it slide for now. I smiled during the rapid fire banter of Fitz and Simmons. Their interactions might be explained better if it had been established that they're twins or at least went to university together. I'm getting a Ron/Hermione vibe from them which is perfectly fine. Which brings us to Agent Ward. Maybe it's pilot jitters, but I didn't get a solid sense that he really knows who his character is. His crack about the SHIELD acronym was funny, and he can kick ass, but his interactions with Skye really derailed his character ("Grammsy?!?"). We've got no choice but to give him a chance, but I'm not anxious to see more at this point.
Tone. Coulson is WAAAAAAY to the left of humorous. Melinda May is playing it straight. Fitz and Simmons are clearly comic relief while Ward vacillates between earnest and inept. This is not a good sign when Ward is clearly intended to be the "grounded" Han Solo character that the audience relates to in a universe of crazy power-surgey centipede wrist bands (see how crazy that sounds?). In "The X-Files" (the show most analogous to "Agents"), Mulder and Scully absolutely believed in the world in which they lived. There were occasional funny moments, but the show presented itself as real and credible in its narrative reality. I'm not saying SHIELD has to go all the way there, but balancing "Brooklyn Nine Nine" hilarity and "real world" threats (a shocking headshot that turns out to be a cure) may be too much for Jed Whedon to handle.