TV Show Digest: The Mandalorian, His Dark Materials, Watchmen, and More
There have been a lot of new shows in the last few weeks. And while I haven’t had time to review them all (and frankly haven’t seen enough of some of them to have an opinion yet), I’d like to get some of my initial thoughts on paper. So, here it goes:
I’ve been looking forward to a live-action Star Wars show for years. Literally, years. Honestly, I didn’t care what the story was- I just wanted a show. I’ve wanted a show since before Disney owned Lucasfilm, since before we knew names like Rey and Kylo Ren. And finally, finally, we’ve got one.
And boy, is it intriguing. When The Mandalorian was first announced, I expected it to be about one of the Fett’s. But, frankly, neither Boba no Jango were compelling characters. There, I said it. At least as far as the movies were concerned (meaning I’m not considering any books, comics, or video games), they were just two cool-looking characters who ultimately died shitty, avoidable deaths.
That’s not who our as yet unnamed Mandalorian is. In just the first two episodes, we’ve met a character who can hold his own in a fight, but isn’t the best fighter (most of his fights so far have been near-misses, not bad-ass victories). He’s very much a gunslinger from a Western, silent and mysterious (more so because of the mask, which he has yet to take off). Except this Western is set in a galaxy far, far away.
Let’s talk about that galaxy. This show reminds me a lot of Rogue One, in that it explores a period of history that is adjacent to what we know. Where Rogue One was set in the days prior to A New Hope, The Mandalorian picks up with the galaxy shortly after Return of the Jedi. We know the Empire has fallen, but remnants and visuals of the Imperial age are ever-present; look no further than Werner Herzog’s Storm Trooper henchmen (whether these are mercenaries who have stolen the white armor, or actual Troopers who have found work where they can now that their regime has fallen, for now it is left to speculation). This is a galaxy that is recovering from a war. But that is just the setting.
We aren’t here- at least right now- to see the galaxy that the Rebels have freed. We are following a bounty hunter in search of his next job.
I’ll admit, the first half of the first episode left me wanting. It felt a little lacking in something. It was unequivocally Star Wars in look and feel, but it wasn’t until the second viewing that I caught what it was. It didn’t sound like Star Wars. Now, don’t get me wrong; Ludwig Göransson’s music is outstanding- his main theme for the Mando has not left my head since I first heard it (it is a healthy mix of classic Western themes with a hint of John Williams, and literally haven’t stopped humming it since I heard it), and I’m loving that Disney is releasing a soundtrack for each episode, which is highly unusual for a TV show (and a pet peeve of mine). But much of the first half of the first episode was very light on the music- whole sequences had no music at all for several minutes. And while that also wasn’t bad, it was just jarring. For a franchise that has always been scored by John Williams’ bombastic overtures- or by composers doing their best John Williams impersonation- Ludwig’s score (or the lack thereof in certain scenes) felt off. Mind you, it feels perfectly right for this character. It just takes some getting used to.
As one of my friends said, if this wasn’t Star Wars, we probably wouldn’t be so quick to judge it. But I also say that pilot episodes usually end up being the worst episode of the series, and episode two, “The Child,” more than made up for any shortcomings the first episode might have had. And Disney was smart to release the second episode just a few days after the first, meaning we didn’t have to wait a week or more to get a second taste of the show.
More than anything, though, The Mandalorian reminds us that this is a new era for Star Wars. With only a few weeks before Rise of Skywalker closes out the saga that started all of this, The Mandalorian is here to show us life after Star Wars. It is the same galaxy, it is set in the heart of the franchise, but the galaxy is very, very big and the Mando is one small man on one tiny ship. After the saga ends, this galaxy will still have new stories to tell, and The Mandalorian proves that they don’t all have to be told in the same shadow of George Lucas’ original films.
I could go into more detail- there are plenty of plot elements already that we need to discuss- but as the season (and the episodes) is so short, I’ll wait to discuss the baby Yoda (it isn’t Yoda, but what else do we call his species?), the mysterious client, and Taika Watiti’s IG droid in more depth later on.
The Mandalorian is full of quirky and exotic aliens as you would expect to find in this galaxy. It’s clearly made from the same fabric as the rest of the franchise but it is sewn together a little differently. This is Star Wars as you would expect to find it, but at the same time, it is entirely not. And if this is any indication of what Disney+ will have to offer, then we are in for a real treat.
His Dark Materials
Let me tell you right up front that I hated The Golden Compass. That movie deserves to burn in whatever hell bad movies go to. And the sad part is, it wasn’t a bad movie. The actors were well cast, the music was good, the visuals weren’t bad for the time it released. But the studio left off the book’s ending. And that was enough to piss me off when I saw it, and it still pisses me off now.
If you haven’t read the book, I won’t spoil the ending here. And don’t spoil it for yourself, either. But I will say that the first book had one of the best, most unexpected endings I have ever read, and the studio for some weird reason chose to end the movie five minutes before that ending would have happened. What’s worse is that they filmed it (you can see it in the trailers).
But enough about that travesty of a movie. We are here to talk about the new adaptation. And if Netflix’s Lemony Snicket series is any indication, a TV show is the way to properly adapt a book series. There’s just more leg room, more time to flesh out the story, and you don’t have to loose half the book to the cutting room floor. I’ll take a Harry Potter reboot, if it is a TV show.
As I write this, two episodes have aired (and another one is set for tonight). And thus far, the show has me hooked in such a way that the movie never accomplished (even before I knew the ending was missing). The show is dark. Properly dark. This might be a show about kids, but it is not a kids show.
It’s been a while since I read the book (I recently re-watched the movie, but that doesn’t give enough of a bearing), and I know the show is doing things that weren’t in the book (or at least this book), but it already feels closer to the tone of the book and the seriousness. And it is compelling as hell. Having not read the book in so long, I only have half an idea what is going on, so the mystery is fresh, and well crafted enough that even when I know something should be coming around the corner, I don’t expect it.
We’ll see if it carries over to the third episode (the first episode not directed by Tom Hooper, who did The King’s Speech and Les Miserables), but so far the cinematography has been, well, cinematic. A trend, I’m noticing, with the three main shows I’m talking about today. Like The Mandalorian, His Dark Materials is beautifully shot.
And like The Mandalorian, it is beautifully scored, too. Last year I praised Lorne Balfe’s music for Mission: Impossible- Fallout, and he’s brought all of his talent to His Dark Materials, crafting a haunting soundtrack to the story. While they aren’t releasing a soundtrack with each episode, BBC/HBO have already released an “anthology” of music from the show, which, I assume, is selections from the first season. And, like the Mando’s theme, I haven’t gotten the main credits song out of my head.
As with any remake, though, I have to compare the cast. Since I’ve seen all of these characters brought to life before, there are going to be some actors I like better here, and some I liked better in the movie (the cast was definitely not one of the film’s many issues).
Of course the main focus is Daphne Keen’s Lyra Belaqua, and Dafne does a great job bringing the character to life, as did Dakota Blue Richards in the movie. The same goes for Ruth Wilson as Mrs. Coulter, who has to fill the same shoes that Nicole Kidman wore. And you know what, Ruth wears those shoes quite a bit better, actually. James McAvoy’s Lord Asriel is just as good as Daniel Craig’s, and I have no doubt that he will do fantastic with the twists and turns ahead (and material that Craig never got to). Game of Thrones’ James Cosmo plays a much better, if not more memorable Farder Coram, and Lucian Msamati plays a very commanding John Faa (did you know the original John Faa was Mr. Carson from Downton Abbey?). I’ll admit, however, I preferred the film’s version of Ma Costa, who’s character on the show seems to have been reduced to crying for her missing boy (maybe I’m wrong, but I remember Ma Costa in the book being much more of a Mrs. Weasley type, and definitely not one to mope around uselessly).
I’ll have to wait for some of the other main characters to show up, as Lyra hasn’t met them yet. The one I have the most apprehension for is Lin-Manuel Miranda as Lee Scoresby. Not that I don’t think he can play the part (he looks like he will play it quite well), but Sam Elliot as Lee was about as perfect a casting as J.K. Simmons’ J. Jonah Jameson.
So far, His Dark Materials has proven that TV is where some of the best book adaptations live. And I can’t wait to see the show tackle the ending I never got in the movie.
When Watchmen was announced, I wasn’t sure if I was interested. I really enjoyed the movie, but it is one of those movies that I watch once every few years and then don’t care to revisit it again.
I was more intrigued, however, when I learned that Watchmen the series would not be a rehash of Watchmen the movie (or, more accurately, the graphic novel). Instead, Watchmen the series picks up in modern day, a couple decades after the events of the comics (specifically, the comics, but I’ll get there), and follows, primarily, new characters.
Telling the story of the police in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who have begun to wear masks of their own to hide their identity from the cult of Rorschach-mask-wearing white supremacists, it is actually a very compelling look at what the world would be like in the wake of the original story’s climax.
Now, it is important to note that the show follows the events of the graphic novel, not the movie, although there is a lot of similarity in the visual style (and the music) of the show and the movie. If you’ve only seen the movie (as I have) then you have to understand that the movie and the book end very, very differently. Wherein the movie, Ozymandias detonates a bomb in New York that makes it look like Dr. Manhattan destroyed the city, the graphic novel has Ozymandias destroy New York with what is perceived to be an alien attack from another dimension. The TV show definitely follows the latter, with emergency broadcast alerts for inter-dimensional squid attacks commonplace.
Because the show is so visually similar to the movie, it wouldn’t have hurt to begin the first episode with a recap of the events of the graphic novel, as I’m sure anyone watching the show who never read the graphic novel’s Wikipedia page (as I did) wouldn’t know that the giant squid attack is the same event as the Dr. Manhattan explosion from the movie.
That said, the show is engaging in a way that the movie never was. The characters here seem more real, rather than the caricatures on display in Zach Snyder’s film. A few mainstays are still around (we’ve met Ozymandias, Silk Spectre II, and we know Dr. Manhattan is on Mars), but more importantly the presence of the more familiar characters looms large over the show. The white supremacist terrorist group known as the Seventh Calvary runs around wearing masks like Rorschach's. The legacy of Adrian Veidt still wields lots of power (even if he’s trapped… where is he trapped, anyway?). And both Dr. Manhattan and inter-dimensional squid storms are constants in this new world.
But the real characters that shine are the main protagonist, Angela Abar (a.k.a. Sister Night), and Wade Tillman (a.k.a. Looking Glass). Abar anchors the story as a police officer the Seventh Calvary attempted to murder, back before the police wore masks. Now, she’s a vigilante cop trying to solve the murder of the police chief. Tillman very much feels like a successor to the actual Rorschach, in how he rarely takes off his mask (even sleeping in it) and always seems focused on the job. In the first five episodes, we’ve already seen both characters unraveled a bit, and we’ve got a ways to go yet.
Every twist and turn, while not a part of the original graphic novel’s story, feels like a natural extension of that world, and, like the two other shows I’m talking about this week, really demonstrates how to make an adaptation that, while not being one hundred percent faithful to the source material, entirely respects said source material. That’s what makes a good adaptation/spin-off/sequel/prequel.
Other Shows I’ve Started
- The World According to Jeff Goldblum is entirely charming, and very informative on subjects that are as far-flung as the man himself. Also available on Disney+, it is well worth a watch.
- Supernatural Season 15: It’s the end of the road for the Winchester Boys. And while this isn’t, strictly, a new show, it’s a significant one for me. I plan on doing a major review of the final season- and a look at the entire series- once it is finished, but I have to say, five episodes in, it is really building up to be the biggest fight of Sam and Dean’s lives. Whatever the end brings, I can’t wait to see it. And as a show that knows its fans very well (trust me, go to one of the conventions), I’d say we are in for something special.
- Batwoman: I love the Arrow-Verse. The Flash has been one of my favorite shows ever since Barry was introduced on Arrow. And while I’ve fallen behind on Supergirl and I still need to start watching Legends of Tomorrow (especially now that Constantine is on there), I’ve quite enjoyed everything they’ve put out (and they are doing a much better job than their big screen counterpart… I can’t wait for Crisis to begin). Batwoman is no exception. The first couple episodes were kinda rocky, but most shows stumble at the beginning, and I think the cast shows real promise to make this yet another wild success for the CW.
- Stumptown: A surprising action-comedy from Robin Sparkles herself, Cobie Smulders’ new show is a lot of fun. It’s a show that feels like it is going to be a procedural cop show, but it keeps taking wild left turns and doing unexpected things, which is very refreshing for the genre. And while it’s got a lot of humor, it also has a lot of heart. It reminds me of shows like Human Target or The Good Guys or Whiskey Cavalier. Damn… that means it will probably get cancelled. Go watch it so it doesn’t get cancelled!