Resisting threats to liberty, people with conflicting personalities coming together in a common cause, and heroes rising from unlikely circumstances have been central themes to some of the most compelling stories in popular culture for decades. They are found in franchises from “Jurassic Park” to “The Lord of the Rings,” and are central to what is arguably the biggest blockbuster movie franchise, “Star Wars.” The tension and complexity in these themes are elevated in “Andor,” a spin-off series set in the “Star Wars” universe that is currently halfway through its 12-episode run.
In a revealing scene in the show’s fifth episode, an idealistic young man named Nemik tries to win cynical Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) over to the nascent rebellion. “We’ve grown reliant on Imperial tech, and we’ve made ourselves vulnerable,” says Nemik. “There’s a growing list of things we’ve known and forgotten. Things they’ve pushed us to forget. Things like freedom.”
Despite its sharp dialogue and refreshingly intelligent take on “Star Wars,” “Andor” has been overshadowed by the current glut of genre TV series. Most fans of fantasy, superhero, or similarly speculative entertainment have been glued to HBO’s “House of the Dragon,” Amazon’s “The Rings of Power,” or even Marvel’s “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” dramedy. Such highly promoted competitors have left little room for a wild-card, slow-burn sci-fi series.
Uncharacteristically, the increasingly surface-level, agenda-driven story machine of Disney — whose recent disappointments include “Pinocchio,” “Turning Red,” “Baymax,” and “Lightyear” — has in “Andor” produced a worthwhile, story-first series that doesn’t feel like it was made by, or for, 10-year-olds.
Storytelling that Assumes Intelligent Viewers
Created by writer-producer Tony Gilroy, known for his spy thriller “Bourne” franchise and corporate-legal dramas such as “Michael Clayton,” serialized sci-fi drama “Andor” brings a welcomed clarity and maturity to this galaxy far, far away.
As Gilroy joins a long line of film talent who have recently transitioned to TV, the curious format of “Andor” takes getting used to. Every three episodes, about two and a half hours of runtime, tells one complete story — essentially, a film structure — while some plot threads are ongoing.
From the opening shot of 1977’s “Star Wars” — as a hulking Star Destroyer captures a small rebel ship in its tractor beam — up to now, the political and factional motivations at play in this universe have hardly been explored in compelling ways.
Crucial questions that underlie the Empire’s rise are now seriously grappled with in this universe. When do central control and government overreach create unintended consequences? Is alliance-building about more than idealism? Can one person make a difference?
At one point in the show, the aforementioned character, Nemik, expresses what the series, in general, is attempting to explore: “The pace of repression outstrips our ability to understand it. And that is the real trick of the Imperial thought machine. It’s easier to hide behind 40 atrocities than a single incident.”
Speaking of atrocities, parents may want to pre-screen episodes before letting pre-teens or younger dive in. While similar to most Marvel films, “Andor” has a bit more language, forceful violence, and suggestive content than “Obi-Wan Kenobi” or the franchise’s various animated series.
A Thief Breaches the Imperial Fortress
This series introduces a dizzying number of characters (reportedly, viewers encounter 190 speaking roles over 12 episodes): imperial officers, would-be rebels, a few familiar faces such as Senator Mon Mothma, alongside many everyday people who are just trying to make a living.
From spies to mechanics, small character moments unveil motivations — or, building layers of intrigue, the truth might be a reversal seen episodes later. The focus here is tactile, street-level experiences on planets fans haven’t seen rather than gimmicky CGI-heavy moments with space wizards known all too well.
“Andor” takes time with its characters, but it also keeps advancing a larger plot. Many shows create drama among like-minded characters through simple misunderstanding or unstated information, a ploy rejected here. Episodes four to six play out as a heist plot, with protagonist Andor joining an infiltration team who’ve trained for months just days before their mission.
They suspect him of ulterior motives. Rather than beating around the bush, Andor admits he’s a mercenary being paid by a secretive mission sponsor. He turns on his accusers, perceptively noting they’re trying to find a reason to bail on a dangerous mission. “Of course, I’m afraid,” he says. “But there’s a difference between fear and losing your nerve.”
Despite misgivings, their complex plan to breach an Imperial base proceeds, and because the characters and story are both well-developed, the sacrifices that result actually feel meaningful.
Will ‘Andor’ Stick the Landing?
As “Andor” moves into the back half of its sprawling narrative, viewers should not preclude the possibility that later episodes could take a sharp ideological turn.
Recently, many families have ended their support of Disney after company executives bragged in a company meeting about their “not so secret agenda” that involved the “queering” of children’s entertainment.
Netflix seems to have similar intentions, as families have found in “The Baby-Sitters Club” and this summer’s “Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous,” which introduced a same-sex romance among children into the fifth and final season of an intriguing animated series.
With streaming competitors no better when it comes to explicit content and hidden agendas — and without a critical-mass family-friendly alternative yet on the scene — some families have stuck with Disney while increasing their vigilance through the use of parental controls. So far, “Star Wars” has remained among the best options for cross-generational viewing.
Opening a grittier chapter of the space-opera saga, “Andor” relies on three-dimensional, struggling characters to make its drama palpable. By showing the inner workings of the Empire — a foundation of the “Star Wars” mythos — viewers see how a bloated and greedy bureaucracy loses its founding spark. It sets the stage for defeat by rag-tag upstarts.
Come to think of it, maybe Disney executives should sit down and watch this one.
Rated TV-14 for coarse language and violence, “Andor” is now streaming on Disney Plus.