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Disney+’s Star Wars series, The Mandalorian, is a triumph of atmosphere — and little else

The Mandalorian blends Star Wars, spaghetti Westerns, and prestige TV. It’s fine. But shouldn’t Disney+ want more than fine?

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The Mandalorian puts Pedro Pascal in a Boba Fett mask.
Why hide Pedro Pascal behind a mask? Why?!
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The Mandalorian, Disney+’s big-ticket original series, set in the Star Wars universe, isn’t bad. It also isn’t good. It’s not much of anything, truth be told. It’s a brand extension, a flag planted in a new corner of a Star Wars universe that feels a lot like old corners of the Star Wars universe.

“It was fine” is maybe not the review Disney+ was hoping for, but I also suspect it’s one the new streaming service will accept. After all, the company withheld the project from critics, citing concerns about spoilers and reveals, but after watching the first episode — the only one available on launch day — I find it difficult to imagine what could have actually been “spoiled.” The big reveal at episode’s end is cool if you’re a major Star Wars fan, but it’s no “I am your father.”

What’s a lot more clear is that Disney withheld The Mandalorian from critics (who are generally very good at playing nice with spoilers!) to ensure that there would be a wave of press coverage — positive or negative! — on Disney+ launch morning. People who work in entertainment media, myself included, know you will be googling for information about the show, and so does Disney+. It also knows that lots of different outlets will feel they essentially have to write about it for that reason. So here we all are.

I could, of course, refuse to participate in this system, which is so nakedly and openly exploited by corporations that want free promotion for their products. But I also know that were I on the other side of this equation, I would be googling “The Mandalorian Disney+ review” or something similar. I’m interested. You’re interested. Capitalism exploits that interest.

But I can still tell you what the show is like, right? Actually, based on the one episode available so far, I’m not sure I can. Here’s what’s good, bad, and weird about The Mandalorian so far.

Good: The atmosphere of the first episode is terrific

The Mandalorian is approached by a man on a pack animal.
Like these guys. I love these guys.

As a property, Star Wars has always seemed as if it might spawn some successful TV shows. Most of the locations the characters visit in the films feel lived-in and built-out in a way that suggests stories about the people who live and work in those locations could be unexpectedly rich. Picture a version of Cheers set in the Cantina in Mos Eisley from the original 1977 film. That could be a lot of fun!

The Mandalorian doesn’t have that kind of zoomed-in setting — its titular bounty hunter character wanders the galaxy in search of his next target — but it does boast a great sense of place. The snowy sweep of the planet where the first episode opens has a chilly, ass-end of the universe feel to it, and even when the action shifts to a location that might best be described as “Did they film these exteriors in Arizona?” there are enough cool critters and interesting characters to compensate for yet another vaguely desert planet in a universe brimming with them.

What’s more, the atmosphere of The Mandalorian is explicitly spaghetti Western, rather than anything more directly related to Star Wars. It’s easy enough to visualize a version of this show made in the late ‘60s that stars Clint Eastwood as the man behind the bounty hunter’s mask. I’m not sure if this is a compliment yet — movies that try to be like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly while missing that movie’s visual poetry are a dime a dozen — but at least in episode one, I appreciated that The Mandalorian understands that what unites the Star Wars movies and spaghetti Westerns is a sense of expansiveness.

Bad: Characters? What characters?

Pedro Pascal is one of the planet’s most handsome men. He was gorgeous as the Viper on Game of Thrones, and he was glorious in Netflix’s Narcos, and the second I found out he would play the lead on this show, I was thrilled for him to have taken yet another big step in his journey to world domination.

But my assumption was that The Mandalorian wouldn’t simply cast the hugely charismatic actor and then trap him behind a mask for its entire running time, stranding him in a space where he’s deprived of a lot of what makes him charismatic (those eyes!). And yet the show’s first episode has hidden one of the world’s most handsome men behind a mask while also giving him minimal dialogue. It’s just objectively a terrible idea!

All is not definitely lost: One of the two minds behind The Mandalorian is Jon Favreau, the veteran blockbuster director who found a way to overcome the “charismatic actor hidden behind a mask” problem in the first Iron Man movie. But he did so by frequently cutting to inside Tony Stark’s mask to show you the guy’s face. The Mandalorian uses no similar tricks. The Mandalorian himself is a cipher, to the degree that he doesn’t have a name (a nod, most likely, to Eastwood’s Man With No Name character from the spaghetti Westerns I was just talking about).

That’s honestly true of every character on the show. They’re all — and I mean all — played by recognizable faces. (Like ... former Saturday Night Live player Horatio Sanz of all people turns up as an alien.) And they’re all ciphers. The Mandalorian goes hard on creating an atmosphere and building its world, but it doesn’t seem particularly invested in fleshing out any of the characters who might exist in that world.

Good: It’s pretty short

The Mandalorian and a droid track down a bounty.
Taika Waititi voices the droid IG-11.

In an era of bloated streaming shows, it was such a relief to see that The Mandalorian’s first episode is just under 40 minutes long, a new entrant in the welcome trend of the half-hour-ish drama. (Others include Amazon’s 2018 series Homecoming and AppleTV+’s upcoming Servant.) For shows that are more focused on setting than character, maybe a shorter running time is a good thing.

That said, even at 39-plus minutes, The Mandalorian feels pretty long. It took all of my critic willpower not to zone out frequently. Favreau’s script and co-creator Dave Filoni’s direction of that script pause so often to be, like, “Isn’t it cool that we’re making a Star Wars show?” that I kept dropping out of the action. The show is somehow at once sprightly and ponderous.

Bad: The whole episode is very much the first five minutes of a movie, stretched out

The Mandalorian will run eight episodes, and if all of them are 40 minutes long, it will have a running time of 320 minutes — not quite short enough to qualify as a feature film but still short enough to watch in a single long afternoon, were you so inclined. (That Disney+ will release the season one finale on December 27, in the midst of the holiday season, when pop culture consumption explodes, betrays its faith that plenty of us will watch in a single long afternoon.)

And so The Mandalorian appears to be following the dreaded “X-hour long movie” model that afflicts so many streaming dramas, where the action is padded, the storytelling is lax, and the character development is trapped by the cinematic model of tracing a character’s gradual progression from one thing to another over two-ish hours.

Successful TV shows often encompass any or all of the preceding ideas, but they usually wed them to an episodic structure that allows them to tell many smaller stories within a larger one. I and many other TV critics have been harping on this for years, but Disney+ did not get any of our memos, as it turns out.

Ultimately, The Mandalorian’s chief effect is of an efficiently paced show that is nevertheless devastatingly boring. We might be watching a long movie, but little thought has been paid to how to make every part of the movie interesting to watch in and of itself, beyond slathering it in high production values. Hence all the atmosphere.

Weird: That’s your big reveal?

The action of The Mandalorian’s first episode involves the title character taking on a bounty that requires finding a 50-year-old being he’s asked to bring back alive — though if circumstances dictate, he can bring back the corpse for less money.

Image reads “spoilers below,” with a triangular sign bearing an exclamation point.

By episode’s end, after he’s found his quarry (with the dubious assistance of a droid voiced by renowned director Taika Waititi), it is revealed to be a giant container holding ... a baby alien that appears to be from the same species as Yoda. It can’t be Yoda, because The Mandalorian takes place after Return of the Jedi, where Yoda dies. So at best, it’s just reincarnated Yoda.

Now, while doing some research online, I learned that apparently we don’t know what kind of alien Yoda is. So if you’re super into Star Wars lore, The Mandalorian holds some promise of explaining more about Yoda and his homeworld (I guess?). If you appreciate Star Wars but couldn’t care less about a lot of its more obscure details — like me — you’re probably just seeing the big-eyed, big-eared baby alien as yet another merchandising opportunity.

Either way, that was the moment Disney was so worried the press would leak? That?

If your primary strategy for getting critics to write about your highly anticipated new show is to withhold it and force them all to do it the morning of launch, that doesn’t mean you have a bad show, not necessarily. The Mandalorian is perfectly fine entertainment. But it’s also fundamentally empty entertainment and not a great harbinger for many Disney+ original programs to come.

The Mandalorian is streaming on Disney+. Episode two will arrive Friday, November 15, and then future episodes will unspool on Fridays going forward.

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