By James Hibberd
July 17, 2013 at 10:49 PM EDT
Credit: Bob D'Amico/ABC

A slippery roving hacker is devoted to revealing the secrets of a mysterious government organization. But the unit’s agents argue their work should remain private from prying civilian eyes. They dismiss the blogger as one of those “pseudo-anarchist hacker types” and insist there are some things the general public is better off not knowing.

“People keep secrets for a reason,” one agent declares.

This is not the plot from the inevitable Edward Snowden movie. It’s a story thread in ABC’s highly anticipated fall drama Marvel’s Agent’s of S.H.I.E.L.D., the heavily buzzed TV-sized spin-off of 2012’s hit film The Avengers about a team of government agents protecting mankind from super-powered threats. The pilot was shot this spring, before the former NSA contractor revealed the U.S. government’s vast data collection program and sparked a worldwide debate about secrets and privacy.

The upcoming show’s unintentional similarities to the current headlines is not lost on those working behind the scenes on the series. “In a world of Wikileaks and the NSA, this show could not be more topical if we timed it,” says Marvel TV head Jeph Loeb, who will present a first-look at footage from the show’s pilot at Comic-Con on Friday. “The world that’s in the story asks: ‘When is it appropriate for us to know secrets and why? And how much do we need to know?’ It all comes back to secrets.”

It’s worth pointing out the secrets being defended in the show are quite different than the real-life debate. The S.H.I.E.L.D. team deals with exotic threats and considers itself “the line between the world and the much weirder world.” Which is a fair conversation, too: How much do we really want to know about the dangers our country faces?

Getting a glimpse of the S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot is itself like being granted top-secret access (here’s what we know about it so far). Every completed fall broadcast TV pilot has been widely distributed to reporters and Hollywood insiders, but not S.H.I.E.L.D. Marvel and ABC’s caution is understandable. Sending out screener DVDs could result in a copy getting online — leaking, in other words — and it’s not like S.H.I.E.L.D. is lacking buzz.

Asked why, like S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, Marvel values project privacy so highly, and Loeb says the issue isn’t secrecy for the sake of secrecy, but trying to preserve some wonder in the storytelling experience. “There was a time where the only way you could find out what was going on in television was to read TV Guide. The Internet changed that. Every little thing becomes a story. And we’re just trying to tell our stories before somebody goes out and tells them before us. Have you ever told a joke and somebody else tells the punchline?”

For example, Loeb recounts how the show’s production team drove out to the desert to shoot a scene for the pilot. It’s 7 a.m. and the crew is in the middle of nowhere, and Loeb checked the Internet. “And sure enough, there’s a [photo] that has gone viral overnight of a tractor trailer that was carrying the S.H.I.E.L.D. truck that was photographed on the highway.”

In the action-packed hour-long S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot, the secrecy debate is largely left unresolved, though the show seems to lean toward defending the value of the government hiding certain facts — the S.H.I.E.L.D. team are the show’s heroes, after all.

Yet in the end, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) has a very different way of dealing with the meddlesome hacker than what the government has tried so far to snare Snowden. I’m quite tempted to reveal what happens, because it would set up a great ending line for this story. But you know what? Some secrets shouldn’t be spoiled.

Episode Recaps

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) assembles a team of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents to handle strange new cases.

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