The Mandalorian Was Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience

Episode 12 of The Mandalorian, “The Siege,” was episodic TV Star Wars, and proved the rest of the series isn’t really that

I keep saying that The Mandalorian is what I always wanted to see as a kid in the early 1980s: an episodic Star Wars television series. This week’s episode 12, “The Siege,” was as close to what I would’ve imagined in 1983 as the series has come so far… and proves that I’ve been wrong about the series this whole time.

This was my least favorite episode of the series so far.1Not that anyone asked, but my previous least favorite was “The Gunslinger” from Season 1. It says a lot about how much I love this show that being “least favorite” isn’t really a knock against the episode; I liked it a lot. But it shows that there’s been a lot more going on with this series than has been apparent on the surface. It’s seemed like such simple, straightforward, storytelling that it’s easy to neglect just how sophisticated it is in style, character, visuals, and music.

“The Siege” is like Carl Weathers interviewed me as a 12-year-old in 1983 and made a checklist of everything I’d want to see in a Star Wars TV series:

  • Jetpacks
  • Speeder bikes
  • Those acrylic star map things
  • Insane jump tricks in an Imperial transport
  • Assault on an Imperial base
  • Lava
  • TIE Fighters where the wings fold up and then they fly off and shoot at the good guys who are racing away
  • Hallways full of sinister experiments
  • Macarons

But there’s something almost indefinable missing, the heart and soul of this series, the thing that makes it feel more like “classic” storytelling than “scoped down a bit” storytelling. To jump to a different franchise: it’s what separates Mad Max: Fury Road from what I’d imagined Max Max: Fury Road was going to be like before I saw it. This was an action-heavy and plot-heavy episode that was still extremely entertaining, even if it didn’t resonate with me the way the others have.

In this review on Screen Crush2Which is also where I stole the title image from, Ryan Arey makes an interesting point that hadn’t occurred to me: if the characters hadn’t been so suspicious of authority and the New Republic at the end of this episode, Baby Yoda would’ve been safely united with Luke Skywalker, and the series would be over. Depending on how deep Moff Gideon’s conspiracy goes, it might’ve even prevented the sequel trilogy before it could start. So maybe the show needs an 80s TV-style catch phrase: Thanks for nothin’, Greef Karga!

The Mandalorian: Out of Alignment

Middle-aged nerd REACTS to episode 2 of season 2, “The Passenger!”

This is inevitably going to end up a Chris Farley-style review of episode 2, “The Passenger,” because I honestly don’t have a whole lot of insight beyond “Remember when he knocked out those two guys at once with a third guy’s rifle? That was awesome.”

This episode was, as usual, cool as hell, and exactly how you should do televised Star Wars, and it remains the series that I wanted in my childhood but would never have been possible so we live in the greatest time in history, etc. etc. I’m actually a little worried that I’ll get too used to this level of quality week after week, and I’ll start taking it for granted.

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The Mandalorian: Now this is fan servicing!

The Mandalorian season opener “The Marshal” was like time traveling back to 1981

Watching The Mandalorian has always given me a vague sense of deja vu, as if I were watching exactly the Star Wars television series I would’ve wanted to see as a kid. According to the Wikipedias, Jon Favreau is five years older than me and grew up in New York City, but especially with the first episode of season 2, “The Marshal,” he’s somehow managed to translate the hopes of a 10-year-old living in the Atlanta suburbs in 1981 directly to the screen.

To be clear, I wouldn’t have been able to come up with any actual stories, or in fact anything specific apart from lots more of this, please. But The Empire Strikes Back left impressionable kids with near-infinite potential: not only could the movies’ story go in any direction, but there were so many possibilities for new planets and new characters and new stories.

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The Haunting of Bly Manor, or, The Stripping of the Screw

I liked The Haunting of Bly Manor, but I’m already afraid of diminishing returns

This week I watched The Haunting of Bly Manor, the second in the new not-quite-anthology series led by Mike Flanagan that started with The Haunting of Hill House. This installment stars several of the same actors from Hill House, but with all-new accents! It’s “based on the work of Henry James,” meaning it uses The Turn of the Screw as a framing structure, incorporating elements of James’s other ghost stories.

I can’t imagine trying to fill up nine hours of television with The Turn of the Screw, since it’s very short, most of it (all of it?) takes place inside the main character’s mind, and it is, I would grow to find, upon reading, earlier this month, intending to get myself in the mood, as so many were, of October and Halloween, filled with sentences, as it might be said, that are so laden, much as a pack mule, with subordinate clauses, that one finds oneself, on occasion, unable to discern what, exactly, the sentence is, I’m disappointed to report, about.

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One Thing I Like About The Haunting of Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House had quite a few jump scares, but it saved its most masterful tricks for the finale

In my attempt to watch more spooky stuff for Halloween season, I watched The Haunting of Hill House over two nights this weekend. That’s not a typo; instead of The Haunting of Bly Manor that everyone’s talking about, I’m keeping true to my goal of staying at least one year behind popular culture.

I never binge-watch anything. On top of the time commitment, I hate the hollow feeling that comes after being invested in something for hours and then having it just… end. For some reason, I can still remember being in middle school, and a local TV station aired a marathon of episodes of the old sitcom Soap, and I watched hours and hours of it. After the finale aired, I got weirdly depressed and couldn’t sleep. Afterwards, I was trying to explain to my mother why I was so depressed, and I couldn’t make sense of why a sitcom — that I didn’t even think was very good — had such an emotional impact on me. I suspect I just remain a sensitive child who gets overly invested in stories.

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It’s not difficult

A reminder from Amber Ruffin to stop giving a pass to so-called “casual” racism

This week on the Amber Ruffin Show, she did a segment calling out racist jackass Sonny David Purdue for his disgraceful mockery of Kamala Harris’s name at a campaign rally. And damn, was it satisfying to see.

There’s been so much inexcusably vile stuff being flung around, that this kind of thing can get lost in the noise. Is it really that harmful? Aren’t there bigger things to worry about? But one thing that people always say about any skill is that you’ve got to make sure you’ve mastered the fundamentals before you can move on to more advanced things. I’d say that the same thing applies to being a decent human.

PS: If you’ve ever made a lazy joke about M Night Shyamalan’s name, that’s almost the same thing.

Edited to add: There’s one thing that I just can’t get over: the guy who’s trying to mock and belittle someone for having a name that reflects her race and her heritage, is named Sonny Purdue. Talk about glass houses, but with a rusted old pickup truck on concrete blocks out front.

Edited to add, later: Apparently I’ve completely mixed up my good ol boys. The racist jackass in the above video is US Senator David Purdue, who is cousins with the racist jackass ex-Georgia governor Sonny Purdue. On the one hand, I’m embarrassed for making such a lazy mistake. On the other, I can’t say I care all that much. At least I didn’t call him Davidalocawhatever to the giggles and cheers of my all-white crowd.

The Mandalorian: We’ve Seen All This Before

The Mandalorian is both the Star Wars TV series I’ve been wanting for over thirty years, and even better than I imagined.

When I’m watching The Mandalorian, the thought that keeps jumping to my mind is “I can’t believe this is on television.” The part of my psyche that made me start tearing up at the sight of X-Wings flying over water in The Force Awakens, is now being triggered multiple times per episode.

They’re riding speeder bikes on Tatooine! That’s an AT-ST that’s been Mad-Maxed out by bandits! There’s a Dewback dragging a dead body! There’s a whole squad of Boba Fetts with jetpacks having a shootout with bounty hunters! This episode of television is starting out with a dogfight in space! Without a doubt, this series brings back memories of taking all of my Star Wars toys and smashing them together in different combinations and different settings.

For about as long as I can remember loving Star Wars — which is about as long as I can remember loving any piece of popular culture — I’ve been wanting a Star Wars TV series. It implies a galaxy full of new planets, new aliens, new droids, new spaceships, and most of all, new stories. An ongoing TV series has always seemed like the perfect way to take some of the characters, locations, or references that are only glimpsed in the movies, and then spend a long time exploring each in detail.

Except that’s essentially what we’ve been seeing for years, ever since the first Marvel comics: an author or a creative team will choose some corner of the Star Wars galaxy and then start world-building. And the results have been all over the place. Many have been horrible, some have been very good, but at least in my opinion, none have hit exactly the right tone and weight. They’re either just a mash-up of familiar elements that don’t seem to add anything, or they go in the opposite direction and seem so preoccupied with world-building and adding to the lore that they no longer feel like Star Wars.

I remember as a kid being annoyed at a comics storyline that had multiple characters being frozen in Carbonite. It just seemed to be an uninspired rehash of a strong image from the movies, and treating it so casually robbed one of the most dramatic moments in The Empire Strikes Back of its weight. In the years since then, it’s been used even more casually in side stories. In fact, one of my only nerdy gripes about The Mandalorian is how the ship has its own portable carbon freezer, and it’s used as a comic beat. It just retroactively makes a key emotional moment in Empire seem like everyone was getting upset over nothing.

At the other extreme are all the absurd “epic” stories that seem to want to turn Star Wars into pure science fiction or pure fantasy (or in the obvious case of the prequels, all space politics), instead of the balance of fantastic melodramatic space western that the original trilogy got so perfectly right. So we’ve had clones, and creatures that evolved to generate force bubbles, and aliens with hypnotic sexy pheromones, and space vampires, and no doubt countless other examples of nonsense that feels tone deaf.

What’s becoming clear with The Mandalorian isn’t that it expands on the Star Wars universe so much as it pares all of it down to the basics. It’s not at all afraid to let its influences show: it went back to the genres that influenced the original movies — westerns, samurai movies, old Flash Gordon serials — and chose to tell simple stories that call back to those formats.

I think it’s a wise reaction to the prequels, since one of the main problems with those movies is that they were overstuffed with characters and political machinations and galactic conflict and side plots, so that it all became noise that drowned out the story that was supposed to be at its core: the corruption and fall of Anakin Skywalker. There’s so much noise that the characters who became the most memorable (in a positive way, so not Jar-Jar) are the ones with the least back story: for me, it’s Mace Windu and General Grievous. Like Boba Fett in the build-up to The Empire Strikes Back, they “read” instantly.

As far as I can recall, The Mandalorian hasn’t introduced any new species, has only one core conflict (Mando vs the bounty hunting guild), and is only concerned with telling one bit of the galactic back story (the purge of the Mandalorians). I can only think of two new creatures — the mount and the Mudhorn from the second episode — and they’re both used matter-of-factly as utility and obstacle, instead of introduced as “Star Wars lore.”

And crucially, the stories are as familiar as their simple titles suggest. There’s the one where uneasy allies attack a heavily-fortified compound, the one with the truck chase from Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Seven Samurai one, the one about a young hotshot gunslinger, and the one that’s a heist plus Alien. But calling them familiar isn’t a criticism; I think it’s what makes the show work as well as it does. The episodes feel like they simply belong in Star Wars lore without having to justify their existence.

And the pared-down storytelling keeps the noise to a minimum so that the key moments have all the impact they should. Episode 6 was full of fight scenes and dramatic take-downs, but each managed to have weight and feel like a climactic moment. Hell, this is a series that has used the “gun shot rings out, and the target is not who you think” three times already, and I believe it’s landed every time.

I’m reminded yet again of all the complaints about The Force Awakens just being a rehash of the original trilogy, and why I think that’s a complaint that completely misses the point. By this point, we’ve all seen enough Star Wars that most people can recognize that it’s not really science fiction, but a different type of fantasy western that has many of the same trappings as science fiction. But I think a lot of people — including myself, and maybe even including George Lucas — still think of Star Wars as being all about plot.

What The Mandalorian gets so right is the recognition that it’s not about plot and probably never has been. Just like sci-fi technology is used as a vehicle to tell stories about magic, plot is just a vehicle to deliver those moments in which the magic amazes us. When a shot lands in exactly the right place to blow up the space station, or the unstoppable walker is destroyed with some cable or a grenade, or the light saber is pulled from the ground and flies into the hand of the woman who’s destined to wield it.

As new people build on the Star Wars “mythos,” I think the ones who recognize that the appeal isn’t necessarily expanding out the uncharted corners of the galaxy, so much as opening up a galaxy full of beloved toys and smashing them together in ways that we never would’ve imagined.

The Magnificent Two Plus Pillboy

I just need to talk about how much I love The Mandalorian

I just finished watching Episode 4 of The Mandalorian, “Sanctuary,” and I don’t have much to say apart from damn I am loving this television show.

Just when you think they’re going to go full-on Lone Wolf and Cub, they dive right into the Seven Samurai, and fair enough. It’s TV law that every episodic series needs to have a Christmas Carol episode, with an exemption for Westerns as long as they do a version of Seven Samurai.

There’s also a little bit of Shane in there, too; or was it Hud? I haven’t actually seen either, but only know enough about them to make vague references to them and hope they work. One of the things that’s so brilliant about The Mandalorian is how well it incorporates all of those references without feeling derivative.

I was being dismissive about the series doing another take on The Magnificent Seven, but there are two things about The Mandalorian that make it work: first, it tells the story so matter-of-factly and un-self-consciously that it doesn’t feel like derivative pastiche or even respectful homage. Instead, it feels like it’s just a part of this heritage of storytelling that effortlessly jumps across genres and cultures: Western, Samurai, “space opera,” Japan to the US to Italy and back to Japan again. It still feels like a series from the late 1970s that couldn’t possibly have existed until the 2010s.

The second thing that makes it work is a seriously bad-ass take on the AT-ST. Yes, it was jarring to see super-tough heroes immediately freak out at the suggestion of an AT-ST, considering everyone in the audience saw a montage of dozens of the things being taken out by tiny, marketable bears with twine and tree trunks. But if you ignore that, it was a great way to bring in the Star Wars nostalgia by turning it into a fantasy element. It had been turned into a monster with glowing red eyes, changing the story into a classic one of noble villagers fighting off a giant bear, or a dragon.

One remarkable thing about The Mandalorian is that every episode has gotten an audible reaction out of me at least once. Usually I watch television and movies with as much detachment as I can manage; even things that make me cry still engage my brain at the “hey, that’s clever” level instead of making me genuinely emotionally invested. But in this episode, I audibly gasped at two points: once when the baby spit out a frog after all the village kids laughed at him, and again at the end when an assassination attempt failed.

The latter of those scenes is a familiar fake-out, and in fact is one that the series has already done in the first episode, and it’s filmed and edited in an extremely predictable and even cliched way. (A shot rings out, birds fly panicked from the trees). But because of the confident, straightforward storytelling that this series excels at, I thought of it as “old-fashioned” instead of “cliched.” It evokes old TV westerns like Bonanza and Gunsmoke not just with style or premise, but with overall sensibility: earnest stories with no sense of irony or self-awareness. And then The Mandalorian adds laser blasts and jet packs and aliens and Werner Herzog — and clever twists on the western like the gambler with a life-saving playing card in his breast pocket, or stubborn droids replacing spooked horses — which all dance across the surface of it to make it feel alien and fantastic.

The Mandalorian continues to be everything I could’ve wanted from a Star Wars TV series. It fills out the universe and shows us elements that have been hinted at but never realized. And best of all it’s so well written. Completely accessible to everyone who’s going to want to watch a show like this, but it never panders or stops to explain every detail. It’s wonderful to see a Star Wars story told with some trust that the audience will be able to keep up. I hope they keep up this caliber of skillful storytelling, but even if they somehow whiff the ending, what we’ve seen so far has been some of the best Star Wars since the early 80s.

And in case I’m reading this years from now and fail to understand the title: this episode had Eugene Cordero playing one of the villagers, and he also played Pillboy on The Good Place.

One Thing I Love About The Mandalorian

The first Star Wars live-action TV series gets so much right that it’d be a shame not to notice its amazing soundtrack.

It feels like I’ve been looking forward to a live-action Star Wars TV series for decades now. Genndy Tartakovsky’s animated Clone Wars series is one of the most original and brilliant things ever to come out of the Star Wars license, but it was deliberately small in scope I’ve heard good things about the animated series The Clone Wars and Rebels, but both are hamstrung by some insistence that animation is for kids. I believe people when they say that The Clone Wars series got really good, but I also have to point out that early episodes still had Jar-Jar.

There’s so much potential for smaller, more deliberately-paced stories in the Star Wars universe, it could be surprising that it’s taken so long for anyone to make a non-juvenile take. After seeing the first two episodes of The Mandalorian, though, I no longer find it that surprising. It seems like every detail and choice in tone demonstrates how badly this could have gone wrong.

The overall tone is like a 1970s Western — or rather, our memory of what they were like, since the reality is that they were painfully slow-paced and dull to 21st century audiences. It’s as if the makers of Wild Wild West had chosen to do a sci-fi sequel, inspired by A Fistful of Dollars. And instead of presenting it as a theme or re-skinning, like Firefly‘s HEY LOOK WE’RE MAKING A SCI-FI WESTERN approach, I think The Mandalorian does it a lot more subtly and “holistically.” It uses storytelling techniques from 1970s Westerns — like montages, long sequences without dialogue, and even end credit sequences over still frames of painted concept art — that make its setting and tone seem an integral part of the story, instead of just a clever pastiche.

That includes the series soundtrack by Ludwig Göransson, which is one thing I love about The Mandalorian (that I’m choosing to write about). This is a work that acknowledges how crucial music is to the Star Wars experience but doesn’t just mimic John Williams’s soundtracks. It also doesn’t fall into the second most obvious trap, which would have been to mimic Ennio Morricone or any of the other iconic western movie and TV soundtracks. The music never seems to be trying to capture a style, but trying to capture a feeling or a concept.

Because so much of The Mandalorian‘s second episode happens without dialogue, it allows the music to come to the forefront. And while the soundtrack doesn’t borrow themes directly from the Star Wars movies, it does use a lot of the same ideas. At least, it seems that way to those of us whose knowledge of classical music is limited almost entirely to John Williams’s soundtracks. The Mandalorian doesn’t have an opening theme song, but in the second episode, the leitmotif for the character of The Mandalorian starts to become more recognizable as a replacement for the main theme. That reliance on characters’ having their own recognizable themes is an integral part of what makes a Star Wars soundtrack.

Throughout the episode, the action sequences are scored with heavily percussive, almost chaotic sounds. It sounds alien, first off, asserting that this isn’t just a conventional Western. But it’s also evocative of the music in Star Wars as the Tusken Raiders attack Luke Skywalker, without being a direct imitation. Even more than that, though, was how much it reminded me of the music in The Planet of the Apes. None of it feels to me like a direct reference, but is instead part of the overall tone and setting of the series, planting it solidly in the realm of late 1970s science fiction.

The music is one perfectly-realized detail of many in the series. And all of the details are working in tandem to make it feel as if it were an inextricable part of the Star Wars universe that’s been sitting in a Lucasfilm vault since 1979. (Even though the seamless effects work and puppetry would make this series impossible before around 2010).

Göransson himself seems like the kind of musician who could only exist in the 21st century, though. His entire career and body of work are super-exciting to me, because it suggests a media environment where genres are irrelevant, and it’s all a huge cross-cultural mash-up. If you haven’t listened to the episode of the Song Exploder podcast in which he talks about recording the soundtrack to Black Panther, you absolutely should.

Una cosa que me encanta de Los Espookys

Los Espookys on HBO is weird and brilliant and I already miss it, even though it’s not over yet

Los Espookys is a comedy series on HBO about a group of four weird friends in some unspecified Latin American country, who stage real-life horror scenes for their various weird clients. Even if you don’t have HBO, you can watch the first episode on YouTube.

I’ve read a bunch of articles and reviews trying to explain why the show’s so surprisingly fun and charming, but I don’t think any of them really nail it. And neither will this blog post, because it’s practical inexplicable. It’s the best weird concept for a comedy I’ve seen since The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmitt, and it’s probably the surprisingly funniest series I’ve seen since 30 Rock, and it’s somehow more impressive than both because it plays simultaneously to both Spanish- and English-speaking audiences. Which leads into the thing I’m picking as One Thing I Like About Los Espookys:

There’s a scene in the third episode where Andrés’s (Jose Torres) handsome but awful boyfriend asks “will you marry me?” and Andrés responds with a hilariously perfect expression that he later describes as “I said maybe with my eyes.” It’s great first of all because it’s perfect for Andrés’s character. He has a perpetual expression that’s a combination of being haunted by his dark mysterious past and annoyed to the point of he can’t even.

Even more than that, though, it’s a moment that’s hilarious but that doesn’t depend on language. Very little of the comedy in Los Espookys is wordplay or referential humor, since everything has to work for people relying on the subtitles as well as people who understand Spanish. Still, the dialogue is often hilarious, but more from stringing absurd ideas together. There isn’t a lot of slapstick, either, although there is some — like the best comedies, Los Espookys is constantly jumping across the lines between cerebral and silly. Because it’s not dependent on being “too Spanish” or “too American,” the humor is more universal.

I read an interview with Torres in which he downplays concerns about trying to sell a show predominantly in Spanish to an American audience, simply by pointing out that he grew up in El Salvador watching American programming with Spanish subtitles, and he handled it fine. That sensibility seems to drive everything about the series: it doesn’t feel the need to sacrifice any of its voice (literally or figuratively) to cater to an English-speaking audience, or in fact any kind of “mainstream” audience.

It doesn’t assume American by default; it’s conceived by people who grew up in Latin American cultures, and it’s adamantly about aspects of that culture — B-movie horror, ever-present Catholicism, copyright-infringing knock-off chocolate companies (a detail that I’d never heard of before but Torres asserts is common) — but is in no way an “intro to Latin America.” It really doesn’t feel as if it’s made for either audience; it’s universal. Or at least universal among people who like weird humor, and who pick up shared references to exorcisms, alien abductions, inheritance scares, and that thing where someone is sucked into a bed and falls through the ceiling to land on the bed again.

I also like that scene because it’s a gay marriage proposal in a universe where nobody treats being gay as all that exceptional. So far it seems like two of the main characters are queer and one seems to be asexual, but it’s just an aspect of their character and not any kind of plot point. In fact, there’s a moment when Andrés’s boyfriend tells him “good luck finding another gay guy,” and it seemed jarring, because until then no one had even seemed to acknowledge that they were a gay couple.

There’s just a sense of confidence and fearlessness throughout Los Espookys that makes it seem like true 21st century multicultural comedy with its own unique voice. And it refuses to do anything that would compromise that voice. It doesn’t tell you that it’s some kind of cultural bridge between English- and Spanish-speaking audiences, it doesn’t over-explain its gags, it doesn’t try to justify its weirdness. It just feels like a smart, goofy show that only tries to be funny; all of its multicultural and multilingual significance is something it says with its eyes.