The live-action Star Wars series The Mandalorian debuted Tuesday — well, technically Monday night thanks to an unannounced early launch — alongside Disney+, with a premiere episode that should put everyone at ease, because, as with all things Star Wars, we were all a little nervous about it living up to the hype. The Mandalorian, at least after one 40-minute episode, is very, very good, and an exciting addition to the massively popular franchise. But the best thing about The Mandalorian is that you don't really have to be a huge Star Wars fan to appreciate it.
That gives the series a cake-and-eat-it-too vibe. The Mandalorian looks and feels very much like everything you associate with Star Wars, with land speeders and sketchy bars filled with humanoid aliens familiar to even the most casual Star Wars fan. But the story — which takes place a few years after the events of Return of the Jedi and looks like it, too — can be picked up whether or not you've seen the prequel films or the in-progress trilogy that concludes later this year (this is assuming that you've done your part as a respectable member of the human race and watched the original trilogy). Instead of tying directly into the eight-and-counting Star Wars films and their long history of complicated politics and irresponsible fathers, The Mandalorian is a whole new story told within the Star Wars universe.
That's an idea not unlike the so-so Star Wars cash-grab films Solo: A Star Wars Story and Rogue One, but unlike those titles, The Mandalorian comes with a very distinct feel that fits snugly into the franchise. The Mandalorian owes more to the westerns of yore rather than the sci-fi of today, and it's the best decision that creator Jon Favreau could have been made for the series.
Westerns are revered for their simplicity, and The Mandalorian embraces its fresh new start by bringing basic storytelling to Star Wars. Pedro Pascal (Game of Thrones' the Red Viper) plays the titular Mandalorian, a bounty hunter along the lines of Boba Fett from the planet Mandalore. Just as Boba Fett was conceived by George Lucas as a new take on Clint Eastwood's The Man With No Name from A Fistful of Dollars, the Mandalorian is a stoic, mysterious figure who rarely shows his face and galaxy-hops to cuff wanted aliens for cold, hard cash. He doesn't say much, but when he does, he makes it count. His first line, "I can take you in cold, or I can take you in warm," is the kind of zinger that Justified's Raylan Givens would say, and while watching it, there were more than a few times I thought to myself, "This is Justified in space," which is about the greatest compliment I can give.
The Mandalorian is given a bounty to find and bring in (preferably live, but he'll still get paid if he brings in a corpse), and that, along with a few moral conundrums when he discovers who his target is, appears to be the whole story of the first eight-episode season. That allows the color of the series to be provided elsewhere. Several side characters complement the Mandalorian's mysteriousness with outspoken personalities, richly filling out the world that might otherwise be lacking if everyone followed The Mandalorian's penchant for silence. There's one character, voiced by Taika Waititi, who should already be given legendary status among Star Wars' denizens, and there appears to be plenty of openings for fun cameos (one cult comedian is finally a part of the Star Wars universe, and I couldn't be more happy for him).
Taking the western feel up a notch is the main setting for the first episode, a dusty planet with the look and feel of Tatooine and its city Mos Eisley. It's unclear if the rest of the series will spend most of its time in Star Wars' version of the Old West, but here's hoping that it does, because it works extremely well. The music, from Oscar-winning composer Ludwig Göransson, is also a perfect blend of John Williams' Star Wars score and spaghetti western twang with the occasional digital beat rising up from beneath it all, the only thing keeping it from being a full-on update of Ennio Morricone being the clinking of spurs.
With practical effects preferred over computer-generated ones — one alien being who helps out The Mandalorian is refreshingly old-school, with a latex mouthpiece that just moves up and down instead of enunciating every syllable — and a framework built around a classic story, the first episode of The Mandalorian is a nostalgic blast that's thrilling, fun, and respectful of its roots, which we can't say about all things Star Wars these days. But it's the perfect fit of its western tone that makes it great.
TV Guide Rating: 4.5/5
The Mandalorian is now streaming on Disney+. New episodes will be released every Friday.