Forget That Far, Far Away Galaxy. THE ACOLYTE Is Trying To Save This One.

It hasn’t exactly been a stellar year for Disney on any level so far, and there isn’t an MCU franchise coming to the theatres this summer to kickstart it.  Judging by the ever-growing expectations and massive costs that have effectively doomed their most recent efforts to performances which the investment community has been left underwhelmed by, that’s not necessarily a bad thing in this climate.   Besides, they’re in reboot, reshoot and revisiting mode, so at this point they can’t be given any more than a mulligan.

But there is a new STAR WARS saga that has unfolded to at least grab some of the summer zeitgeist, deployed to Disney Plus to give that service a much-needed kickstart of its own.  THE ACOLYTE debuted earlier this week with the first two of eight episodes after nearly a four and one-half year ramping up process.  And unlike the service’s other significant efforts to play off the iconic IP, such as THE MANDOLORIAN and ANDOR, THE ACOLYTE deviates from the tried and true to a an even greater degree.

THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER’s Angie Han set the stage in her review that dropped earlier this week:

Andor is not The Last Jedi and The Last Jedi is not The Phantom Menace, and each is more interesting for the new paths they cut across familiar territory. In broad strokes, though, a whole lot of them seem to come down to the same trusty formula: heroic Jedi freedom fighters versus dark-side imperialists, on and on across the galaxy for decades.

In that light, Disney+‘s The Acolyte represents an intriguing shakeup. The spinoff, set roughly a century before the events of the films, finds the Jedi not as scrappy underdogs but as entrenched establishment.

THE NEW YORK TIMES’ Mike Hale added further context in his write-up:

It is set during a prehistorical period known as the High Republic, until now depicted primarily in short stories, novels and comic books read only by serious fans. (The High Republic stories are to George Lucas’s central works somewhat as “The Silmarillion” is to “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.”).

And VARIETY’s Alison Herman reminds that much like the previous brand expansions that Disney Plus has trotted out, this iteration has been entrusted to another hotly pursued voice with a distinct take:

Since Disney revived “Star Wars” in 2015 with J.J. Abrams’ “The Force Awakens,” the strongest entries in the franchise have had one trait in common. Rian Johnson’s “The Last Jedi” and Tony Gilroy’s “Andor” both opted to take the franchise in bold new directions, opening up exciting new possibilities for what a “Star Wars” story could be. The Acolyte” is not “Andor” or “The Last Jedi,” nor is it trying to be. (In fact, it’s practically the inverse of Gilroy’s show; where “Andor” eschews the supernatural in favor of foot soldiers, “The Acolyte” goes all-in on the Jedi order and its Force-wielding space wizards.) But the latest “Star Wars” series, created by Leslye Headland of “Bachelorette” and “Russian Doll,” shares with these predecessors a willingness to put its own spin on hallowed lore.

Wikipedia offers an unbiased description of THE ACOLYTE’s heroine(s):

The central character(s) are Osha and Mae Aniseya, (t)win sisters who were separated by a tragedy when they were young. Osha is the former Padawan learner of Sol who left the Jedi Order due to “internal turmoil” she has regarding her connection to the Force. Mae is presumed dead until she re-emerges as a dangerous warrior using the dark side of the Force.[8] (Lead Amandla) Stenberg wrote backstories for both characters and compared them to the concept of yin and yang: Mae represents the yin, with Stenberg describing her as intuitive and acting based on emotion; Osha represents the yang, with a more “masculine” façade hiding her fragility.

So no, it’s not your father’s (grandfather’s)?  STAR WARS.  It’s not even your older brother’s.  And it appears an awful lot of them aren’t very happy with Headland’s version.  FORBES’ Paul Tassi reported on the bottom line qualitative results yesterday:

Despite extremely positive critic reviews overall, The Acolyte has managed to put up the lowest audience scores in the entire history of the Star Wars franchise, save one classic failure. It’s lower than every movie, every show, except for one, the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special from 1978.

But CBR’s Jeremy Dick countered that news with his own reporting that, at worst, puts a massive asterisk next to those numbers:

The scores from critics and the audience are very far apart for the new Star Wars series, The Acolyte. However, while the series is not without its criticism, its rough audience scores may be partly due to “review bombing.” bReview bombing is the process of intentionally dragging down a movie or TV show’s audience score by posting multiple reviews with the lowest rating possible, oftentimes from trolls who haven’t actually seen it. Many of the reviews for The Acolyte appear to be AI-generated with only basic plot synopses and nothing substantial or unique written. Much of the half-star reviews from the audience on Rotten Tomatoes are also from brand-new accounts, which could be another sign that the Star Wars show is getting review bombed.

Tassi did address the obvious elephant in the room as to the possible reasons for this online vitriol:

So what’s going on? It’s complicated. Yes, I know that obviously the go-to idea is review bombing, and that this is a Star Wars project that stars a black woman, Amandla Stenberg. The only similar lead here would be Rosario Dawson, a woman of color leading Ahsoka, but that character is long-beloved, not brand new. Rogue One and the new sequel trilogy were led by women, Felicity Jones and Daisy Ridley respectively, though of course Ridley especially got massive amounts of (unjustified) hate over the years. There are the “usual types” making outraged YouTube videos about the series, though the prime target appears to be its showrunner, Leslye Headland, who is being deemed a “fake fan” and the main problem with the series.  

Which may be why, in an atypical act of recency and transparency, Disney Plus felt compelled to release late yesterday some quantitative information to counter the alleged misinformation which is making headlines, which folks like COMING SOON’s Vansh Mehra obligingly shared post-haste:

Star Wars: The Acolyte’s debut viewership numbers are extremely high as it became Disney Plus’ most-viewed show of 2024 on the first day. It easily managed to go past all major Disney Plus launches of the year. These include X-Men ’97, Echo, and Star Wars: The Bad Batch Season 3.

As per Disney (via Variety), the series garnered 4.8 million views on day one, with one view being calculated “by dividing the number of hours each title is watched by its runtime.” These views have also been compared with Ahsoka.

Even though Ahsoka’s first-day viewership numbers aren’t available, Disney revealed it got over 14 million views in its first five days. Assuming it got 2.8 million views per day, The Acolyte easily wins, leading by roughly 2 million views.

Except that the realities of both attrition and distraction rarely see initial episodes’ viewership stand up over the course of a series, streaming, linear, whatever.  And Tassi’s teammate Erik Kain offered this take on what the public at large, real or fake, hasn’t yet been able to see:

I wrote a review covering the first two episodes of the show before I’d watched the next two. You can read that right here. It’ll catch you up on the story without too many spoilers. I was tentatively optimistic after two episodes. I’ve become decidedly less so after four. Quite frankly, even if the final four episodes of the season turn out to be fantastic, the first four will hold it back from greatness. And how often does a series get that much better in its second half?

And Kain also addresses that prevaling elephant, with perhaps a bit more unfortunate but necessary context:

It is, however, very, very diverse and I suspect that this focus on diversity drives a great deal of both the positive critical reception and negative audience reviews. When you commit so utterly to making a social cause the thing that defines your show, you effectively guarantee that it becomes just another shouting match in the never-ending culture wars.

And if this indeed a culture war touchstone (pun unintentional), THE ACOLYTE will require a groundswell of support from audiences who appreciate a diverse, strong, female lead regardless of their history with the franchise–exactly the sort of folks that any streamer would covet in their ad-supported audience.  Whether or not THE ACOLYTE is a compelling enough dramatic proposition to do over time is an open and clearly crucial question.

I’m reserving my own judgement for now; I’ve just started watching episode one and, bluntly, my history with the franchise, especially its 21st century works, isn’t going to allow me shortcuts.  I’ll at least give it the benefit of the doubt until then, which is more that can be said for the frustrated fanboi fanbase and their bots.

But I will say that if it turns out that the level of drama unfolding in trade press is greater than that on the screen, it might take something or someone else to be Disney’s “only hope” to save the summer.

I’d offer him up, but you do remember how HIS Disney Plus series fared, right?

Until next time…

 

 

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