Tuesday, May 19, 2020

TV Review: "Stargirl" Pilot

When a beloved property gets adapted to movies or tv, there tend to be one of two extreme reactions from the fanbase.  Either they love it and overlook its flaws because of the joy of seeing the story on the screen or they hate it because of the flaws and how the story is warped by what is on the screen.

I have been a big fan of Courtney Whitmore aka Stargirl for decades now.  She has this unique dynamic in how she is presented in comics.  She is teenager, basically a child, who still is able to rise to the level of courageous feats while never losing that spark of innocence.  I've always loved that her design is clearly youthful and feminine without being over-sexualized, as often happens in comics.  This makes sense since the might Geoff Johns designed Courtney after his late sister.  And Stargirl acted as a legacy character to the great DC Golden Age while letting us see the DCU through young eyes of wonder.

So as a super fan, how did I feel about the Stargirl pilot?

I loved it!

For those who are unfamiliar, the basic plot of Stargirl is this:  Courtney Whitmore (Brec Bassinger) is a teen girl from Los Angeles who has to move to Blue Valley, Nebraska because her mother Barbara (Amy Smart) married the affable mechanic Pat Dugan (Luke Wilson).  Soon they along with Pat's middle-school-aged son Mike (Trae Romano) find themselves in small town Midwest, where things may not be quite what they seem.  As Courtney feels greater alienation she accidentally discovers Pat's secret:  He was the sidekick to Starman (Joel McHale), who died ten years earlier along with most members of the Justice Society of America.  But for some reason, Starman's cosmic staff, a device that seems to be part pseudo-Iron Man weapon and part magic carpet from Aladdin, calls to her and sets her up on some misadventures.

One of the things that struck me about the pilot is how cinematic it felt.   Not only was the opening sequence like something out of a theatrical super hero film, but even the more emotional moments that followed were filmed with a care that I don't usually see on TV.  This is not a knock at television directors, as the time pressures are usually much more demanding.  But Stargirl felt like it could have fit in right alongside SHAZAM!

Along with that film, it shares a similar tone.  The pilot juxtaposes the innocent wonder of being a child who discovers super powers with the darker elements of adolescents.  But it does so while maintaining a strong sense of humor.  It was very reminiscent of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, except not as steeped in melodrama and cynicism (in fact I get the feeling as the show progresses, it will feel even more and more like the Buffy).  Sometimes this tone works really well, as when we are filled with excited joy as Courtney discovers what the staff can do.  Sometimes it doesn't work as well, as in odd humor during Starman's death scene.  All the while the score by Pinar Toprak (who composed the music for Captain Marvel) elevates the pilot to make it feel even more like a movie.  The colors and production values, especially on Pat Dugan's beautiful vintage car, are fun to watch.  Add to that some of the best special effects I've seen for a DC TV show and I was thoroughly entertained the entire time.

Bassinger is a little rough around the edges.  There are times when she is clearly "acting" and doesn't feel as natural as she should.  I tend to be a little more forgiving of younger actors, and in this case her youth works for her.  One of the things I like about her casting is that she doesn't feel like some overly-mature supermodel playing a teenager.  She feels like a real teen, with that adorable and frustrating mixture of maturity and immaturity.  Wilson is fantastic as Dugan.  He is perfect as the seeming nice guy who finishes last.  He still feels in awe and in the shadow of Starman and the rest of the JSA.  You can see how his feelings of inadequacy as a sidekick and step-father continually frustrate him, but not to the point of despair.  Wilson is doing something actually incredibly difficult: portraying basic decency in a dramatic way.  Smart doesn't seem to have aged a day since she came on the scene in the 1990's.  She wasn't given a lot to do in this episode, but I like how the family dynamic is going to play out.

Now, as I mentioned at the top of the article, I am probably falling into the camp that overlooks the flaws of the show a bit too much.  A lot of the side characters are given brief introductions and appear to be stereotypes of typical high school shows.  But their brief appearances don't weigh too heavily on the pilot.

As big fan of Starman and the JSA, it was so exciting to get glimpses of Golden Age Flash, Hourman, Dr. Fate, Johnny Thunder, and the rest.  While the show, for simplicity's sake, conflates The Star-Spangled Kid/Skyman (Sylvester Pemberton) with Starman (Jack Knight), it is completely forgivable and actually removes an unnecessary layer of complexity.  I am someone who reads the entire run of James Robinson's Starman every few years and to see the Cosmic Staff figure in so prominently and in such detail is a lot of fun.  I love the innovation of giving the staff a kind of personality.  It helps nudge Courtney onto the heroic path and helps make up for any early deficits in her superhero fighting skills.

The episode ends on a nice little cliffhanger and left wanting more.

I watched the show on the DCU app, but it will be premiering on broadcast TV tonight at 8pm on the CW.  I can't guarantee that the quality will maintain past the pilot, but right now I think episode is one of the best comic book pilots I have seen.

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