Even with one of cinema’s all-time great villains as its walking, wheezing symbol, the Empire’s atrocities have never been emphasized to the extent felt in “Andor.” From the unprovoked hostilities Cassian (Diego Luna) responds to in the premiere (reminiscent of behavior by certain bullies in blue) to Episode 10’s run-for-your-life prison break — sparked by the discovery that the Empire isn’t just lying about releasing its inmates, but killing everyone who might realize they’re serving a never-ending sentence — the way showrunner Tony Gilroy meticulously constructs the Rebel forces’ motivation is acutely intense. By the time Cassian exclaims, “I’d rather die trying to take them down than die giving them what they want,” there’s no questioning how his fellow escapees will respond. You’re already on board, and so are they.
Such passion epitomizes the power of television: Detailed development over hours of storytelling (and weeks of consumption) builds to a distinct emotional response. When it happens within a popular franchise — one long-established and beloved the world over — sharing that feeling only amplifies its impact.
Except… “Andor” hasn’t felt amplified. Not yet. Despite its roots in a galaxy far, far away and broad subscriber base on Disney+, the latest — and greatest — “Star Wars” TV show isn’t generating the same kind of buzz as the stories that came before it. Viewership, by what metrics we have, has been so-so. Audience demand (as measured by Parrot Analytics) doesn’t compare to the likes of “Obi-Wan Kenobi” at its peak, nor can it match “The Mandalorian” right now, nearly two years since a new episode debuted. And for those who question all ratings data in the confounding era of peak TV, take it from Tony Gilroy himself.
“I think I was surprised,” the “Andor” showrunner said in a recent interview with Variety. “I thought the show […] would have this gigantic, instantaneous audience that would just be everywhere, but that it would take forever for non-‘Star Wars’ people or critics or my cohort of friends to get involved in the show. The opposite happened. We ended up with all this critical praise, all this deep appreciation and understanding from a really surprising number of sources, and we’re chasing the audience.”
There are plenty of reasons why “Andor” hasn’t found its audience: The “Rogue One” prequel series features no characters from the original trilogy, TV watchers have been busy with a surfeit of fall blockbusters, and, perhaps most significantly, “Andor” is decidedly not for children. But the paradoxically tempered public response to such a stirring “Star Wars” story can also be explained quite simply: This is what happens when you tarnish a legacy.
“Andor” could very well be paying the price for Disney’s decade-long dismantling of the “Star Wars” brand. The die-hard fans will always tune in, but casual moviegoers and TV watchers have been betrayed one too many times. There was the toxic fan service following “The Last Jedi,” and all the behind-the-scenes turmoil in “Solo,” not to mention a surge of uninspired over-saturation meant to prop up Disney+, while turning fan-favorite characters into filler content. Heck, “Rogue One” itself wasn’t exactly met with universal acclaim. All that (and a bit more) led to this: What stood for decades as a beacon of blockbuster excellence now warrants a healthy dose of skepticism before jumping to hyperspace.
It’s a shame, too, because where mistakes were made, “Andor” is getting just about everything right. The first three episodes (released together) quickly ditch the effects-laden look of other Disney+ entries. Environments in “The Mandalorian,” “Book of Boba Fett,” and especially “Obi-Wan Kenobi” can rely too heavily on empty, hollow atmospheres (created by Stagecraft, the budget-cutting video wall built by ILM). Even with the impressive digital surroundings, a tangible connection is lacking.
But you can feel “Andor” — the first Disney+ “Star Wars” series not to use Stagecraft — from the start. On Ferrix, a salvage and repair hub, workers rip apart wreckage for spare parts. Tools range from wrenches and hammers to hulking machines made to move the remnants of other hulking machines. Seeing characters interact with every level of the production — from the nuts and bolts to the ships and star cruisers — helps ground viewers in a blue collar perspective. These are the people who build the “Star Wars” universe you already love, and you get to see them build it.
Not only are those details fun for super fans and casual viewers alike, but how they’re captured also contributes to a shared yearning for escape. (Director Toby Haynes breaks down his contributions in an informative article by IndieWire’s Sarah Shachat.) The Empire’s gloved fist can be felt in its unjust bureaucracy (brought to crackling life by writers Gilroy, Beau Willimon, and more), as well as the physical spaces captured with exacting outlooks by the directorial teams. All together, these finer points add to the series’ sense of awe, when spacecrafts take flight and characters travel to new worlds.
Speaking of characters, “Andor” has a lot of them — enough to generate 195 speaking roles as well as contestable rankings of who’s our No. 1 boy. (“Boy” being a gender-neutral term, as Dedra Meero is the top choice.) Television thrives on characters, whether it’s getting to spend extended time with your favorite heroes or appreciating the intimate connection formed by well-constructed guests. (Andy Serkis’ recent appearance is as close as “Andor” has come to taking over Twitter.)
Such exciting new faces provide a much-needed reminder that “Star Wars” doesn’t always have to be looking backward. Nostalgia has ran riot across Hollywood (to the point one particularly observant series literally weaponized it), but nowhere more rampantly than Disney — a company so high on its own hubris, it will raise the dead. Yes, “Andor” is a prequel, but aside from Forest Whittaker’s recent pop-in (and, of course, Cassian himself), the series has focused on branching out. Episodes have steadily introduced dynamic backstories for the relentless nepo baby Syril (Kyle Soller), the two-faced puppet master Luthen (Stellan Skarsgard), and the politically astute yet action-oriented Dedra (Denise Gough). Such provocative characters even help the series sidestep its prequel problem. Sure, we know what happens to Cassian, but what about everyone else?
“Andor” is also a minor marvel of serialized storytelling — and not just because it makes other blockbuster prequels look especially convoluted. (No weekly time jumps necessary!) Setting aside the clunky execution of the sequel trilogy, the stalled execution of would-be spinoffs like “Solo,” and the zero execution of any more movies, “The Mandalorian” has been the only successfully sustainable “Star Wars” story of the Disney era. I love that Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni’s pseudo-western dad drama brought TV’s tried-and-true episodic structure to streaming — in such a big way it changed how streamers released series — but there’s still something to be said for the way “Andor” continuously pushes forward. It’s the way many audiences today prefer to experience TV, and how Gilroy & Co. have adapted an older model for the modern age is savvy, refreshing, and highly satisfying.
By the end of its 12-episode first season (12 episodes! You gotta love it!), “Andor” appears to be picking up steam — not just in its thrilling narrative choices, but in catching up to its audience. Demand is peaking. Nielsen ratings are ticking back in the right direction. And to spike interest in the finale (out November 23), Disney is utilizing its broadcast, cable, and streaming platforms to release the first two episodes on ABC, FX, Freeform, and even Hulu over Thanksgiving weekend. Will the Mouse House hype machine and critical buzz be enough to win back skeptics? Can “Andor” still become the model for future “Star Wars” stories to follow? Is there a bright future still possible for one of the world’s favorite franchises?
“Andor” may not have lightsabers, Jedis, or a tiny green alien, but it does wield the force that matters: passion. “That’s what a reckoning sounds like,” Maarva (Fiona Shaw) says. Here’s hoping she’s right.
“Andor” is available to stream on Disney+. The Season 1 finale premieres Wednesday, November 23, and the first two episodes will air that night on ABC, the next day (Thanksgiving) on FX, and be available on Hulu from November 23 through December 7.