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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Stargirl adds some Riverdale flavor to the Arrowverse

Illustration for article titled iStargirl /iadds some iRiverdale /iflavor to the Arrowverse
Photo: Quantrell Colbert (The CW)
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It’s no surprise that DC Universe decided to team up with The CW to air its latest series, Stargirl. (Weekly episodes debut on the streaming platform on Mondays before airing on The CW on Tuesday evenings.) For the past few years, The CW has cornered the market on both teen shows and superhero series. And to put it somewhat reductively, Stargirl is basically Supergirl meets Riverdale. The sunny series centers on Courtney Whitmore (Brec Bassinger), a plucky teen whose superhero origin story begins when her newly blended family moves to a 1950s-flavored small town in Nebraska. With some solid action sequences and a big dose of the family drama that tends to fuel both the teen and superhero genres, the Stargirl premiere is a fun, if familiar, intro to our latest TV superhero. In fact, in many ways it feels like a return to the Smallville roots that helped pave the way for the modern day superhero TV trend in the first place.

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Showrunner and writer Geoff Johns has some Smallville credits among the long list of DC movie and TV properties he’s worked on over the years (including Aquaman and the upcoming Wonder Woman 1984). Director Glen Winter also got his start on Smallville before moving on to helm dozens of episodes of Greg Berlanti’s Arrowverse shows. More importantly, however, Johns co-created the Stargirl comic book character in the first place. So Stargirl comes with an impressive pedigree that very much shines through in this confident hour of TV. Nineteen years after Smallville debuted (and eight years after Arrow launched its own interconnected TV universe), superhero shows no longer need to slowly ease their audiences into the idea of costumed crime fighters.

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Stargirl kicks off with an impressive action sequence set at the tail end of this universe’s “Golden Age of Heroes.” (The Crisis On Infinite Earths crossover confirmed that Stargirl is an official part of the Arrowverse, but takes place on an “Earth-2” separate from the “Earth Prime” where Supergirl, Batwoman, The Flash, The Legends of Tomorrow, and Black Lightning all hangout.) Sidekick/assistant Pat Dugan a.k.a. Stripesy (Luke Wilson) watches in horror as the heroes of the Justice Society of America are brutally defeated by a nefarious group of villains. With his dying words, Pat’s best friend Sylvester Pemberton a.k.a. Starman (Joel McHale) entrusts him to find someone worthy of wielding Starman’s enchanted cosmic staff—just not Pat himself.

Illustration for article titled iStargirl /iadds some iRiverdale /iflavor to the Arrowverse
Photo: Jace Downs (The CW)
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McHale’s delivery of that gag is funny, but what really sells it is Wilson’s self-effacing reaction. Wilson’s specialty is blending try-hard dweebiness with a sense of sensitive self-awareness, and that makes a lovely anchor for Stargirl’s upbeat world. When Pat chastises himself for trying too hard to win over his new stepdaughter, Courtney’s mom Barbara (Amy Smart) reassures him, “You’re trying just fine.” Wilson is the secret weapon of this pilot, and Pat is in many ways its most original character. As Courtney follows a classic hero’s journey of a young woman embracing her power, Pat is poised to follow a more unique path of a middle-aged man re-finding his place in the world of heroes.

For her part, Bassinger (a former Nickelodeon star) makes a confident first impression as Courtney, a spirited teen with a big heart. In a premiere full of familiar teen and superhero storytelling beats, the most exciting innovation is Courtney’s fighting style. Since she’s a gymnast, her first instinct upon discovering Starman’s flying cosmic staff is to use it for her uneven bar routine. It’s a joyful sequence, and Courtney’s athletic, balletic approach immediately stands out from the usual superhero action. (Starman uses the staff as a much more traditional bludgeon.) Plus the semi-sentient weapon adds an anarchic X-factor that calls to mind the Magic Carpet from Aladdin or the Cloak of Levitation from Doctor Strange.

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Illustration for article titled iStargirl /iadds some iRiverdale /iflavor to the Arrowverse
Photo: Annette Brown (The CW)

Yet after delivering several exhilarating sequences of Courtney learning to use her newfound abilities, the episode just kind of stops. While network TV pilots traditionally have to sell a show’s entire world in a single hour, Stargirl’s premiere was clearly written with the knowledge that the show already had a full season order. For comparison, by the end of the Supergirl pilot, Kara Danvers has an alias, a costume, several human allies, a villian-of-the-week plot generator, and a whole secret government organization backing her up. Stargirl ends with a somewhat nondescript battle against baddie Brainwave (Christopher James Baker) and the reveal of Pat in his robotic S.T.R.I.P.E. armor—events that, in a more traditional pilot, likely would’ve led into the second act.

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It’s not a bad thing that this premiere has more room to breathe; Stargirl seems to promise more serialized storytelling than its Arrowverse step-siblings anyway. But it would be nice to have a little more indication of what kind of show Stargirl is going to be moving forward. What balance is it going to strike between the superhero stuff, the high school stuff, and the family stuff? Courtney’s new classmates barely get names, let alone personality traits. Nor does the world of Blue Valley get a ton of definition beyond its hodge podge 1950s/’80s/’90s aesthetic. And while Starman’s pledge that the JSA must be rebuilt will presumably fall on Courtney’s star-spangled shoulders (the show’s tagline is “A new generation of justice”), that’s not an idea this premiere particularly drills home.

A pilot shouldn’t feel too complete, of course (it’s launching an ongoing series after all), but it shouldn’t feel quite this incomplete either. Still, strong visual effects and the show’s sunnily self-aware vibe go a long way to smoothing over the uneven plotting. What really pops in this episode are Courtney and Pat. Their stepfather/stepdaughter, mentor/mentee relationship has the potential to be something really unique within our overstuffed superhero landscape. That alone is incentive enough to tune in again next week.

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Stray observations

  • The A.V. Club is testing out regular Stargirl coverage with weekly reviews of the first three episodes. We’ll take it from there based on reader interest.
  • Any series that prominently features Hanson’s acoustic version of “MMMBop” is okay in my book!
  • So far Courtney’s precocious stepbrother Mike (Trae Romano) is the least compelling aspect of the series for me. He feels ported in from a much broader Disney Channel series.
  • The random scene of Pat meeting Larry “Crusher” Crock maybe could’ve been saved until episode two.
  • While a lot of the “jocks and losers” tropes of Courtney’s new high school are a tad generic, the brief moment of a teen girl being bullied over nude photos implies that Stargirl plans to tackle some topical teen issues as well.
  • I found it a little hard to get a handle on how much Courtney knows/remembers about her long-absent father. (Is that locket picture really the sole photo she has of him?) Also, it definitely seems like her dad is going to turn out to be Brainwave, right?
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.

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