For those readers who live in a corner of the world which still has to wait months for the release of Disney+, I apologize. I’m about to talk about Disney+’s flagship show, and there will be spoilers. Consider this your heads-up spoiler warning.
After 42 years of cinematic adventures and various detours into animation and video game storytelling, Star Wars finally has its first live-action TV show, and it’s so much weirder than expected. The Mandalorian – Disney+’s most anticipated launch title – is a sci-fi western about an unnamed, masked character escorting, spoiler, Baby Yoda through the galaxy. (Technically, since the series takes place after Return of the Jedi the real Yoda is dead. So, the baby is simply from the same species as Yoda, yet everyone online is calling him Baby Yoda.) In one episode, the titular bounty hunter has a spaghetti western shootout with a droid mo-capped by Taika Waititi; in the next, ole Mandy – as I’m choosing to call him – barters with some Jawas and battles a horned cave monster.
The stakes, they be low. The episodes, they be short, clocking in at just 36- and 28-minutes long respectively if you don’t count the lengthy closing credits which seem to run scenes from the episode through a Ralph McQuarrie image generator. As these images slowly float past, we are meant to enjoy Ludwig Goransson’s musical score which has almost nothing in common with John Williams. Instead, it sounds more like an extension of Goransson’s prior work updating the Rocky score for the Creed films.
So, it’s not pitched like prestige TV that absolutely cannot be missed, and although it kind of looks like Star Wars it sure doesn’t like it. Strange choices.
Beyond that, missing is the hero’s journey mythologizing of the films; in its place is fanfic stuff like quarreling over-glorified bitcoin in a post-Empire world. In the absence of a lead character with a face and character offering emotion and nuance, we have Boba Fett iconography to nostalgically adore and a blank canvas to project onto. That’s probably why in a show called The Mandalorian the most interesting characters so far are those without masks, such as Nick Nolte’s stoic herder…
…or Baby Yoda’s adorable stuffed animal eyes.
Yet, there’s something deeply fascinating about all of this weirdness. Jon Favreau, who pitched the series to Lucasfilm and has sole writing credit on the first two episodes, has never made a TV show before. Dave Filoni is supposed to be his shield for that. Eventually taken on as a Mandalorian co-creator and occasional director, Filoni’s experience in animation through Star Wars Clone Wars and Rebels, to name a few, was supposed to give Favreau a guiding hand on how to make a TV show and not just a long movie cut into small pieces. Sure, neither of them had worked in live-action TV before, but if they just put the Clone Wars or Rebels aesthetic and storytelling philosophy into live-action everything would be fine.
To some degree, there is an obvious marriage of philosophies. There is a bit of Filoni’s signature Clone Wars old film serial style to all of this. Mostly, though, it feels like Favreau is telling whatever story he wanted to, spinning out a scenario which plays a bit like if someone smashed together a Boba Fett solo movie with a Yoda origin story and called it good. (I guess that makes The Mandalorian the X-Men: The First Class – which began as two separate projects, both of them origin stories, and then combined the pair – of Star Wars stories.)
In so doing, Favreau’s violating the unwritten rules of peak TV, where every episode is supposed to be weaponized to prolong the binge, throwing ideas and cliffhangers at the wall just to keep us watching. The Mandalorian, by comparison, feels like a show which knows it’s not going to be binged but instead ingested week-to-week as new episodes drop every Friday.
That’s how we’ve ended up with perhaps the biggest surprise so far: in a show which carries a reported $12.5m per-episode budget, the second episode is a time-filling sidequest that doesn’t even end with a cliffhanger. I’m never going to discount any episode which features a person in Boba Fett armor awkwardly sitting on the bridge of a Jawa ship, clearly annoyed that they’re all laughing at him and probably intentionally swerving into those bumps in the road that result in him hitting his head on the low-ceiling. That’s just fanboy/girl gold!
However, after two episodes The Mandalorian has already delivered an inessential half-hour of television. I’m struggling to process all of this, but my initial impression is that while all of TV seems to be zigging The Mandalorian is zagging. It doesn’t feel like it wants to win any awards. It’s not trying to be the next Game of Thrones or, to stick with in the sci-fi TV space, The Expanse. So far, it’s just a weekly excuse to drop into the Star Wars universe and stretch out a little bit, using a masked cipher as our entryway into moderately fun mini-adventures.
That’s after two episodes, though. We’re clearly in for more background information about Baby Yoda, possibly, for better or worse, learning quite a bit about one of the more mysterious characters into Star Wars canon. The story could eventually somehow factor into Rise of Skywalker, despite so far taking place many years earlier. This 8-episode movie posing as a TV series might not have another inessential episode throughout the rest of its run. For now, though, Disney+’s flagship title is so much weirder than expected. I don’t love it yet, but it’s damn intriguing.
What about you? Let me know in the comments.