When I reviewed the first 3 episodes of Stargirl a few weeks back, I had a lot of issues with what I saw. But then, I have a lot of issues with just about every show on the CW. Flash, Supergirl, Arrow, and even Legends of Tomorrow have all had entire seasons that are tough to get through, and yet I still count them among my favorite shows. Despite my issues with Stargirl, I want to keep watching because what works, works well. Spoilers follow for Stargirl season 1, episode 1, “Pilot.”
I described Stargirl in my initial review as feeling like Amblin by way of the CW, and that comes through especially in the opening moments of this pilot episode. Music chimes in: “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” with a title card reading “10 years ago.” A great-looking classic auto squeals around a corner frantically with Luke Wilson’s character driving. An establishing shot of Los Angeles tells us where we are. He pulls up to a huge mansion glowing green from every window.
Wilson’s character runs into the mansion to witness an epic battle ensuing between the Justice Society and the Injustice Society. The whole thing feels like a 1980s kids movie with 2020 special effects. Most of the Justice Society is masked and dressed in classically-styled outfits from the Golden, Silver, and Bronze ages of comics.
And then Starman shows up, played by comedic actor Joel McHale. He looks completely different from the other heroes thanks to his Cosmic Staff, his modern-styled outfit, and his lack of a mask. This is where my collection of issues with the show begins. The heroes, the car–they look like they’re from the 1950s or 1960s. They look like Hooded Justice from Watchmen, or something like that. Starman, meanwhile, looks like he’s from a modern DC or Marvel flick, with his costume a step above Arrowverse stuff, sitting closer to the look of the costumes in Titans.
Imagine Zack Snyder’s Batman suddenly joining Richard Donner’s Superman and the Wonder Woman played by Lynda Carter. It’s just weird. Starman fights the good fight for a while, but Icicle gets the better of him. His sidekick, Stripesy, pulls him out and tries to get him to safety in his rocket car. Solomon Grundy chases them, and Starman ends up dying in the aftermath of the resulting crash.
Joel McHale’s primary talent shines through here as Starman tells Stripesy–Pat–to find a successor for the Cosmic Staff. But not him. Anyone but him. Especially not him.
Again, there’s a clash of tones here. There’s nothing else in the first episode that really fits this tone, and it doesn’t fit the opening scene. If we’d gotten to know Starman better, it might make sense, but while it’s funny, it feels totally out of place.
1950 or 2020?
Thankfully, this doesn’t last long. Things jump 10 years into the future so that we can meet our protagonist, Courtney Whitmore. Courtney is just moving away from Los Angeles, headed for Blue Valley, Nebraska with her mom, and who else but Stripesy himself, Pat.
There’s another weird tonal character here. Joel McHale’s character sounded like, well, a Joel McHale character and maybe a modern superhero in a world of old-timey superheroes. Then there’s Pat’s son, Mike, played by Trae Romano. He’s maybe 12 or 13 in the show, but he talks like he was raised specifically and only on Rodney Dangerfield albums. He’s just a series of zingers linked together by lines about Fortnite so that you know for sure this game is set in a post-2018 world.
Stargirl Shines Bright
The part that works, though, is Courtney herself, played by Brec Bassinger. I’m not going to go through her journey step by step here, but I can say without a doubt that if Stargirl is successful, a lot of that will be a credit to her and the way she interacts with the Cosmic Staff. The Staff has a personality of is own and Courtney picks up on that right away. Bassinger delivers that believably, and this is where things really feel like an Amblin movie.
She’s a big city girl in a small town; she wants to do gymnastics at school, but the team was shut down due to lack of interest, so the woman suggests she try cheerleading. The bitter face she makes is perfect and hilarious. She has tons of attitude, but it doesn’t feel over the top like Romano’s character. She’s ready to grow up and do big things but lives in a small world. She tries to defend a girl from being slut-shamed on her first day of school and ends up in detention. She stomps her way home and ends up kicking stuff around in the basement, which leads her to find the picture of Pat with the Justice Society and to finding the staff itself.
The staff activates and Courtney goes outside with it where she starts to do a gymnastics routine with it. I’m not sure how much stunt work Bassinger did, but she and her stuntperson’s physicality bring a ton of energy to this character as she treats it like a horizontal bar and a pole, and then later tries to balance on it surfboard style.
When she ends up facing off against a bunch of jocks, the staff takes control, and I really believed her performance as the staff whipped her around.
Stargirl’s First Villain
Another Amblin moment comes toward the end of the episode when the staff sneaks into Courtney’s room, causing her to scream. She has the kind of conversation with her mom that a kid trying to hide E.T. has, and then the staff pulls her out her window for a magical nighttime ride over the city. The ride gets even more Amblin when she meets her first villain, Brainwave. Brainwave knocks her out of the sky and the two have an understandably very scary battle for Courtney, but her gymnastic skills let her dodge and flip around the projectile tires. These scenes I know I’m going to enjoy throughout the series. It’s hard not to cheer her on and wish I was in her shoes doing those flips.
Courtney escapes with her life only to find out that her step-dad, Pat, has a robot car. Sweet.
The weird tonal issues with the show are really distracting. But the first seasons of Legends of Tomorrow, Parks and Rec, and Star Trek: The Next Generation were nigh unwatchable only to end up becoming unique standout shows in their genres. I’m willing to give Stargirl the benefit of the doubt.