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TV review: ‘Star Wars: The Acolyte’ a middling mystery to start

By Mark Meszoros, The News-Herald
Published: June 9, 2024, 6:06am

If you’ve seen any of the advanced footage for “Star Wars: The Acolyte,” you’ve witnessed part of the confrontation between a Jedi knight, Carrie-Anne Moss’ Master Indara, and a would-be assassin, Amandla Stenberg’s Mae Aniseya.

Upon starting the series — which gets underway with two episodes that dropped this week on Disney+ — you almost immediately will be pulled into this martial arts-heavy fight, during which Moss shows she still has plenty of chops from her time portraying fierce heroine Trinity in “The Matrix” saga and “The Hate U Give” star Stenberg more than holds her own.

Mae encourages her to attack, but Indara resists, sticking with defensive moves.

It is a thrilling, well-choreographed start to the show’s eight-episode debut season, the first half of which was made available for review.

Disappointingly, the series never quite recaptures that level of excitement in those first four chapters. On the other hand, the Leslye Headland-created show does a solid job of keeping its intrigue alive, as it is, at its core, a mystery.

Considering that “Star Wars” releases take place in various spots on a vast timeline, some background for “The Acolyte” is in order.

The series is set 100 years, give or take, before the events of 1999’s “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace,” which launched the “Skywalker Saga.”

“The Acolyte” occurs late in “The High Republic” era. In this time of initially great prosperity — which has been fleshed out in recent years in media such as young adult novels and comic books, with an overall storyline still being penned — the Force-wielding Jedi Knights are many and, in essence, they are guardians of the galaxy.

In this first slice of High Republic live action, Mae is out to kill four of them, including Sol (“Squid Game” star Lee Jung-jae), who is tapped to lead the investigation into her by Master Vernestra Rwoh (Rebecca Henderson), a fan-favorite High Republic character.

Why is Mae — who wields the Force but not a lightsaber, the traditional weapon of a Jedi — out for vengeance? That will be revealed by the third installment, an episode set 16 years earlier that introduces us to a coven of Force-sensitive witches on the planet Brendock who are led by Mother Aniseya (Jodie Turner-Smith).

A more closely held secret is the identity of the dark-side Force user who has trained her, a masked figure we meet — briefly — at the end of the first episode. Even Mae may not know. Is he a Sith Lord? The Sith haven’t been seen in ages, but we know they will return at some point before the events of the Prequel Trilogy. (Of course, you can find theories as to whom this menage may be online.)

“The Acolyte” introduces myriad other characters, including Jecki (Dafne Keen), Sol’s rigid Padawan, aka apprentice; Yord (Charlie Barnett), another Jedi Knight taking part in the investigation; Jedi Wookie Kelnacca (Joonas Suotamo, no stranger to being one of the big, hairy creatures after having portrayed Chewbacca for much of the sequel trilogy and in 2018’s “Solo: A Star Wars Story”); and Qimir (Manny Jacinto of “The Good Place”), an apothecary owner and associate of Mae.

As with many a “Star Wars” show or film, “The Acolyte” isn’t exactly a showcase for topnotch acting, but Stenberg and Lee are reasonably compelling as the show’s central figures.

And although he doesn’t appear in the first half of the season, it’s possible we’ll see a younger version of Jedi Master Yoda, whose species, as we know, enjoys lengthy lifespans. That would be nice.

“Nice” is a rather appropriate word for what we’ve seen so far of “The Acolyte.” The enthusiasm for “Star Wars” from showrunner Headland, best known for co-creating the largely enjoyable and often trippy series “Russian Doll,” translates to the screen, especially in the first episode, which she both wrote and directed. However, like other “Star Wars” efforts — most notably the previous live-action series, “Ahsoka” — it frequently stagnates thanks to too many instances of characters talking without anything all that interesting to say.

We do not want to be too quick to judge it, however. In 2022, we found the first four episodes of “Andor” to be a slog, only to conclude after seeing all 12 first-season installments that it was the best “Star Wars” project of the Disney era to date.

It’s tough to envision “The Acolyte” reaching that level of quality, but at the end of the fourth episode — by which time just about every key moment from the trailers have played out — we certainly are left wanting to see what comes next.

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2.5 stars (out of 4)

Rating: TV-14

How to watch: Disney+