Stargirl” (Mondays on DC Universe; Tuesdays on CW) – one of 14 current TV series executive-produced by Greg Berlanti – falls into the category of what my buddy Michael calls “product”: something that exists for commercial rather than artistic reasons. That doesn’t mean it can’t be good, but this latest addition to the DC TV universe is as stiff as the Cosmic Staff wielded by its title character, teen Courtney Whitmore (Brec Bassinger, “47 Meters Down: Uncaged”).
It didn’t have to be. For one thing, it’s mildly different among the DC stable in that its superhero is a teenager (Bassinger is 20 but passes as younger). But the pilot episode — written by superhero veteran Geoff Johns, who created this character for DC Comics in 1999 — pulls back from all of its mildly different possibilities.
When Courtney’s family – including her mom (Amy Smart), stepdad (Luke Wilson) and stepbrother (Trae Romano) — move from L.A. to Blue Valley, Nebraska, “Stargirl” has fun with the contrast between the big city and the small town, as everyone they pass on the sidewalk gives them a friendly hello. Upon its introduction, Blue Valley is appealingly stuck in the past; it might’ve been neat to flat-out set “Stargirl” in the 1950s to really set it apart, since everything is so old-fashioned anyway.
But the subsequent modern-day high school scenes then come from a different teleplay, as everyone is mean to Courtney. She ends up at the losers’ table in the lunchroom, and while Yvette Monreal (quite good in “Rambo: Last Blood”) is present as Yolanda, their friendship isn’t established in this first episode. Nor is Stargirl’s costume.
Instead, the pilot episode focuses on Courtney’s bond with the Cosmic Staff in an “E.T.” type of yarn where it helps her yet also gets her in trouble. If you fear that a staff will not be as endearing as a cute alien being or a basic bond with a new school friend, your fear is warranted. This is boring stuff, driven by the special effects of the staff doing whatever needs to be done – increasingly controlled by Courtney, as it begins to trust her more.
Perhaps to assure that the effects don’t look too dumb, “Stargirl” is photographed darker than it should be. It opens with a flashback of a bunch of colorfully costumed superheroes of the Justice Society of America – including Stargirl’s late bio-dad Starman (Joel McHale) – fighting supervillains. But we don’t get a good look at any of them, as the sequence has a flashback filter on it in addition to being set at night. The irksome visual style continues throughout the episode, which features mostly nighttime scenes, contrasting with a storytelling tone that aches to be sunnier.
Although Stargirl learns her heritage from her stepdad – who was Starman’s sidekick Stripesy back in the day – it plays as rote exposition rather than anything emotional. “Stargirl” doesn’t intend to be a grim show, but it doesn’t embrace its happy side like it should.
In the flashback, McHale plays Starman’s death for a laugh, telling Stripesy that the Cosmic Staff should be handed to someone who can get the job done – not Stripesy himself. He repeats the joke a few times like it’s a Disney superhero comedy. Not much is played for a laugh the rest of the way, despite Wilson being in the cast. (Although given the writing in that flashback, maybe that’s a good thing.)
The story beats stick in the “safe for tweens” zone in the sense that the origin story is straightforward. The language is surprisingly harsh at times, though, as the bullies label one of the girls at the losers’ table a “slut,” and a mean girl calls Courtney a “bitch.” The tonal confusion, on top of the visual bleakness, leaves a viewer jittery rather than intrigued.
“Stargirl” was inevitably going to be product, but it’s a shame that it passes on every opportunity – a nostalgic setting, an embrace of humor, classmates that aren’t cruel archetypes — to be a fun product. If its assignment was to check the boxes of superhero origin tropes, it passes, and avoids offending the test-grader. But it’s incompetently crafted, and worse than that, it’s boring.