Why We Hate Streaming

Streaming is an overstuffed mess. This series aims to get to the bottom of why the boom is so boring.

Early in the second episode of Obi-WanKenobi, our bearded hero walks into a spice lab in Daiyu City. It’s not his first stop since arriving from Tatooine in pursuit of a kidnapped Princess Leia. Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor, in perhaps the least necessary parenthetical I’ve ever written) has already walked past a panhandling clone soldier, rebuffed a teenage spice dealer, and confronted a Jedi-posing charlatan. But now he’s found where he thinks Leia is being held, and he needs a distraction.

The answer lies in a heated flask holding a bubbling blue liquid. Standing some feet away, Obi-Wan concentrates lightly; the camera cuts in close on the flask; Natalie Holt’s musical score swells as the blue liquid roils. When the flask explodes—as it must, so that Obi-Wan can grab a guard’s key in the ensuing minor chaos and slip into a locked passageway—it does so with all the verisimilitude of a Morbius outtake. A brief flash of smoke, a Foley artist somewhere pressing “tinkling glass sound,” and the flask is gone.

As disappointments go, it’s a minor one. Director Deborah Chow opted for a tiny CGI shortcut—so what? It’s the kind of thing that dozens of mid-grade genre TV series do all the time. It saves time, saves money, and saves the practical effects for grander moments like Obi-Wan and Darth Vader’s episode 3 showdown. Besides, we’ve already gotten enough fan service to choke an eopie, from Kumail Nanjiani as the faux-Jedi huckster to Temuera Morrison as the down-on-his-luck clone—who, of course, possesses the same genetic stock as the Fett bounty hunters Morrison once played.

But the sad little flaskplosion also reveals an inescapable larger truth. For all its Easter-egging and canon-winking, Obi-Wan Kenobi shows us something more telling: its seams. It is a mid-grade genre TV series. And with Disney gearing up to churn out ever more Star Wars shows, that might prove to be the best that fans can hope for.

There’d be no point in a blow-by-blow recitation of Obi-Wan Kenobi so far, other than to say it feels as recombinant as everything else coming out of the Star Wars galaxy over the past few years. Things skew a decidedly prequel direction this time around—McGregor is joined in the role-reprising by Jimmy Smits, Joel Edgerton, and Hayden Christensen (who appeared in the trilogy as Leia’s father Bail Organa, Uncle Owen, and Anakin Skywalker, respectively)—but the beats are as familiar and comforting as they were when The Force Awakens got the gang back together in 2015.

The prequels have seen a redemption of sorts in recent years, fueled in large part by the younger millennials who grew up with the films and might have played Padmé and Jar Jar at recess rather than Leia and Lando. (Years ago, people’s feelings about Ewoks were a handy heuristic to divine their age range; now, pod races are the litmus test.) Obi-Wan Kenobi lands somewhere between the two generations, Tatooine’s smoke-belching hovertrains existing alongside Alderaan’s gleaming pixel-panoramas.

Of all the ghosts lurking, the most menacing phantom through the show’s first three episodes might be Obi-Wan Kenobi’s need to slow to the speed of the child at its center. Sometimes literally: Vivien Lyra Blair may be charming as a 10-year-old Leia, but her two early chase scenes plod along like a chopped-and-screwed version of The Benny Hill Show’s credits sequences. As monumental as Leia becomes over her life, she’s relegated here to a Force-sensitive MacGuffin—seemingly serving only to bring Obi-Wan out of retirement, and into awareness that his one-time protégé had survived the lava rivers of Mustafar.

Yet, like Jake Lloyd’s pint-size Anakin 23 years ago, Blair’s Leia is also a savvy entry point for the fandom’s youngest inductees. And really, that’s the recipe here. For all of The Mandalorian’s fan-pleasing Outer Rim lore, it was the Child/Grogu/Baby Yoda who turned viewers’ kids into viewers themselves. That matters more than you might think; generations may be 20 years long, but Disney-era Star Wars knows it has far less time to lock in a new cohort. Not counting The Clone Wars and other animated holdovers, The Force Awakens ended a decade-long screen drought.

Since then, the pace of Star Wars Content™ has accelerated steadily. First came five movies; then, after the 2019 launch of Disney+, three live-action shows and two animated ones. And it’s just the beginning. Last month, in a Vanity Fair cover story, and then at the fan event Celebration, the studio gave details about four more live-action series on the way. Some give film characters the prequel treatment (Andor), some bring an animated-show character into the flesh (Ahsoka), others create new characters (The Skeleton Crew) or leave the Skywalker era of Galactic history entirely (The Acolyte).

As is obvious, the blueprint for all this lies a single tile away on the Disney+ home screen. George Lucas envisioned TV projects—50 hours of Star Wars: Underworld footage are languishing on a RAID array somewhere—yet, it took Marvel architect Kevin Feige to show that you could splice a saga’s DNA onto the small screen without abandoning the multiplex marathon. With Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni at the narratological helm, the Star Wars wing of the Happiest Media Conglomerate on Earth seems to be pursuing that same kind of single-minded fandom.

But, as Boba Fett once said, not so fast. (That he said it in the 2012 Xbox game Kinect Star Wars is something we can all agree to overlook.) As invulnerable as the Star Wars battle station may seem, there are a few thermal exhaust ports lurking in the plan.

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The first is the all-but-inevitable law of diminishing returns. That Marvel managed to string together 23 movies as deftly as it did was a miracle; expecting the same from a Phase 4 would have been folly even if it had stuck solely to the big screen. (Sorry, Eternals.) And on television, the phenomenon was even more obvious. WandaVision was a joy. Loki? Sure. But as the drumbeat persisted—Hawkeye, Moon Knight—the joy ebbed.

And that’s from a paracosm with the luxury of contemporaneity. Star Wars is already mired in a web of telling stories twice, even thrice over, skyhopping back and forth across the same 70-year period to tease out new elements of a saga many know by heart. Soon, we’re going to need more than one hand to count the number of times Mark Hamill has been de-aged. Andor promises the story of a Rebel officer five years before he died stealing the Death Star’s schematics (the event that made possible the ur-Star Wars). Diego Luna’s charisma notwithstanding, can you actually say you feel like any of it will matter? When you build a sandbox out of epochal events, whatever happens inside that box becomes mundane by comparison.

Then there’s the issue of tonal variety. A large part of the MCU’s charmed run stemmed from its ever-changing menu; the installments that truly captured the imagination were the ones that did something different: Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther; WandaVision. Now, think back to what happened when Phil Lord and Chris Miller tried to turn their Han Solo prequel into a Lord/Miller comedy. Or when Gareth Edwards went so gritty with Rogue One that brass sent in Tony Gilroy and a spate of reshoots. Instead, every Star Wars tale tries to cover all its bases, and winds up reenacting the same Galactic Mad Libs. Cute/sardonic droid, wisecracking ruffian, digitally recreated Grand Moff, repeat. Space opera by committee starts to feel a whole lot like NCIS with blasters.

“Persistent storytelling,” Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy called it in the Vanity Fair story. There’s no question she knows what she’s doing, just like there’s no question I’m not Kennedy or Favreau or Disney CEO Bob Chapek. (If I was, I’d have blown the budget long ago on commissioning trap remixes of “Yub Nub.”) But one thing I do know, after a lifetime of Trek and Potter and Who and Terminator and Batman and hearing that there are FIVE MORE AVATAR MOVIES COMING, is that every universe has a fulcrum. An inflection point at which enjoyment curdles into obligation. The longer that universe lasts, the more attenuated its stories become, and the harder it is to prevent that curdling.

Seven years ago, WIRED published an article titled “You Won’t Live to See the Final Star Wars Movie.” That’s still probably true. What’s changed is that movies are no longer the coin of the realm. In other words, it’s not just the movies that’ll outlive us all—but the TV shows that can be made, as Lucasfilm executive Carrie Beck told Vanity Fair, in “a third of the budget and half the time.” I don’t care how excited you were standing in line for The Empire Strikes Back, or The Phantom Menace, or even The Rise of Skywalker; call me when you're face-to-face with Season 3 of Growing Up Ackbar.

But back to Obi-Wan, who by the end of the third episode has finally come face-to-face with Anakin-cum-Vader. The boyish face, now blistered and scarred, is hidden beneath a full-coverage helmet. The body looms, its cybernetic limb replacements making the man nearly 7 feet tall. He was a man once. He’s something different now.

“What have you become?” gasps Obi-Wan.

The answer, in a voice he’s never heard before: “I am what you made me.”

We all wanted more Star Wars. Now we’re getting it. And then some.

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