The DC universe has absolutely dominated the small screen the last few years with half a dozen CW shows, the rare Fox or Epix series, and a robust and increasingly entertaining line up of genuinely good offerings on the DC Universe streaming platform. But despite comic books’ status as kid-friendly fare, the shows DC has produced have been quite the opposite. Stargirl feels like the show that’s been missing from DC’s TV line up.
Stargirl—which will stream on DC Universe before moving to the CW the next day—is based on Geoff Johns’ DC Comics Stargirl character. In the new series, Courtney Whitmore (Brec Bassinger) is a teenage girl who finds Starman’s cosmic staff hidden in her garage and decides to pair it with her talent as a gymnast and her generally heroic personality to become a whole vigilante for good. As with John’s original 1999 run, Courtney is the stepdaughter of Pat Dugan, aka S.T.R.I.P.E.S., Starman’s sidekick. Here Dugan is played by Luke Wilson, who manages to make you believe a guy with a jawline like that would ever be a mere sidekick.
Wilson is one of a cadre of well-known actors in the show and it’s the first thing I noticed that separated Stargirl from the other CW series it will share a channel with. Most of those shows are shot, and seemingly cast, in Vancouver and have a clear CW budget. Stargirl, featuring people like Wilson, Amy Smart as Courtney’s mom, and Joel McHale as Starman, feels decidedly more cinematic. It’s present in the cinematography, and even the locations too. Instead of grey cloud-masked sunlight, Canadian pine tree forests, and fast and cheap CW lighting, you get Atlanta, Georgia standing in for Nebraska (a lot more trees). Lighting is rich and the images on the screen just look nicer and more vivid than you’re used to from a DC show, apart from Black Lightning (also shot in Atlanta!) and the other live-action DC Universe shows.
The look of the show, which is limited to 13 episodes in its first season (DC Universe provided us with the first three episodes), sets it apart, but the content on display does too. The show starts an enormous battle between a comic book accurate Justice Society of America and the Injustice Society. Characters like Brainwave, Tigress, and Solomon fricking Grundy tear apart a mansion as they battle Starman, Hourman, and Doctor Fate. It’s big, epic, and cartoonish in a very fun way.
That cartoonish sensibility pairs well with Bassinger’s Courtney. She’s a Disney Channel lead in a DC show. Blonde, kind, and cheerful, she isn’t a character terribly weighed down by her life. Any chips on her shoulder are small and tolerable. She loves her mom, who raised her single-handedly most of her life, tolerates her brother, and gently butts heads with her new stepdad. She’s mainly annoyed about having to move to a new city and being a bit of an outcast at her school because she’s new. It feels like watching any of a dozen kid-friendly movies about a high schooler with a wholesome, if complex at-home dynamic. It’s cozy in a way superhero shows usually aren’t.
Then Courtney finds the cosmic staff, beats up a few bullies by accident, and realizes that saving lives and fighting crime might be a better extracurricular than cheerleading. Slowly a larger yarn is spun. There’s a reason stepdad Dugan chose to relocate to Nebraska, and there’s a reason some of the locals seem evil in a very Injustice-sort of way. The villains of the show remind me of that moment in The Incredibles when Elasti-Girl explains to her kids that the bad guys aren’t like the ones from TV—they’ll kill. The show is so gentle, but its villains are still the same violent murderers from the opening moments of the premiere. They’re still out to do a lot more than help usher a girl along her heroic journey.
I messaged io9's editor Jill Pantozzi while watching the show, struck by its charms and frothiness, and she asked me if it was good. That might be too strong a word. My bar for “good TV” has gotten higher over the last few years. There’s a lot of TV I watch, and I lot I suggest to others, but very few (like Killing Eve and DC Universe’s Harley Quinn) that I genuinely feel are appealing enough to most people to be called “good.” Stargirl is fun. It’s like those early evening shows on Sunday night you might have watched growing up. The kind of inoffensive drama that will appeal to tweens and teens, not terrify younger kids, and not bore parents to tears. That’s not necessarily my thing (even if I adore the Stargirl character) but I appreciate it offering the superhero TV landscape a little variety.
While the story beyond “girl gets superpowers” has just begun, I like its full commitment to “Justice Society in High School.” It’s such a high concept and such a specific one! It leaves me wondering who the show is for—particularly as it was originally intended as a DC Universe exclusive and that service’s subscriber base is not necessarily this show’s audience. Neither is the CW’s older teen audience for that matter. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some wild fluctuations in tone as the show finds its footing. Yet for now, it’s a nice and simple spring treat. It won’t ruin your world if you forget to tune in, but you’ll be delighted if you do.
Stargirl is set to premiere on DC Universe on Monday, May 18 and will always air the next day on the CW.
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