‘The Acolyte’: The Force Is With Amandla Stenberg in Dark ‘Star Wars’ Assassin Mystery

Disney might be cutting down this year on overloading us with their plethora of franchises, but there’s always room for a little more “Star Wars.” The latest show set in a galaxy far, far away is “The Acolyte,” which continues the trend of playing with genre while delivering the same old sites and fan services. Leslye Headland, the creator of Netflix’s “Russian Doll,” helms this intriguing new attempt at mining for new approaches to a franchise everyone in our galaxy recognizes. This time she’s doing what amounts to a murder mystery and it works. 

Timelines are always important in “Star Wars,” and this series takes place around a hundred years before the events of the prequel film “The Phantom Menace.” It is the time of the High Republic and there’s relative peace with the Jedi in full prominence. In the Outer Rim, Master Indara (Carrie-Anne Moss) is murdered by a cloaked assassin. A fellow Jedi, Master Sol (Lee Jung-jae), is stunned to discover the assassin might be his former padawan, Osha (Amandla Stenberg), who left the Jedi Order six years ago. Now Osha works as a mechanic in the Trade Federation. Sol brings along some Jedis, Yord Fandar (Charlie Barnett) and Padawan Jecki (Dafne Keen) to capture Osha. Alas, it turns out she was half a galaxy away from where Indara was killed, which means the killer is probably Osha’s rogue twin, Mae (Stenberg doing double duty).

So far, “The Acolyte” is off to a good start as a “Star Wars” series that isn’t desperate to constantly link itself to the movies. Like the MCU, the content spun out of George Lucas’ original creation has been growing into a wobbly tree with varying results. There are the strong deliveries like “The Mandalorian” season one and “Andor,” total bores like “Ahsoka,” forgetful fan servicing such as “Obi-Wan Kenobi” and shows no one remembers anymore like “The Book of Boba Fett.” This one falls somewhere in the middle of the better ones. The set design and photography look about the same as every other “Star Wars” series but the story has intrigue and decent character development. Action scenes are also entertainingly choreographed. Some fights seem fit for a good martial arts adventure and a lightsaber isn’t always needed to settle a standoff. 

By fashioning the plot as a murder mystery, space is given to explore the various players involved while keeping us guessing who Mae will kill next. No doubt the key unnamed villain will be some sort of Sith, considering the pilot ends with Mae meeting a dark, cloaked figure by a seashore with a red lightsaber. But the writing also focuses on the core concept of separated twins where one is channeling scars or rages through the dark side, while the other is facing the insecurities that led her to abandon the Jedi Order. All those worthy “Star Wars” themes about the senselessness of vengeance and discovering your inner strength work convincingly with this narrative.

Amandla Stenberg is a strong addition to the canon. She’s balancing two performances in the show and gives Osha and Mae distinct personalities. They are both flawed and anti-heroes, without needing to play the card of the more angelic sister versus the diabolical villain. Inevitably Mae still becomes a bit more intriguing because of the dangerous drive to attack the Jedi, meaning we want to know more about what makes her tick. The side performances help build the environment as well. Lee Jung-jae, best known for series like “Squid Game,” is the best new TV Jedi master out of the recent crop. He has the urgency and wisdom you need to sell a teacher of the Force. Manny Jacinto is the “fun” addition as Qimir, who helps Mae and is the prerequisite, rogue smuggler all these stories somehow need. But one shouldn’t complain when “The Acolyte” serves precisely what “Star Wars” fans come to expect.

Will “The Acolyte” win new converts to this franchise? It’s hard to tell considering this has long been one of those “if you know you know” brands. But for the fans it could prove to be a welcome relief after numerous misfires. Of course, it would be great to see showrunners be allowed to go even bolder and truly try something new. Among the movies and shows, “Rogue One” and “Andor” came close while the rest veered too much into factory product territory. Yet, “The Acolyte” has a well-structured story worth following with dramatic payoffs that have at least a bit of depth. 

Star Wars: The Acolyte” season one begins streaming June 4 with new episodes premiering Tuesdays on Disney+.