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Sunday, June 26, 2022

The Mandalorian, The Boys and the Battle for Second Place in the Streaming World

Disney's 'The Mandalorian' and Amazon's 'The Boys' are the latest shows to be offered up in the streaming wars. William McCathie decides which one comes out on top

This past year saw the completion of the second seasons of two flagship streaming shows – Disney+’s The Mandalorian, and Amazon Prime Video’s The Boys. On the surface these two don’t seem to have a whole lot in common, beyond the main villain of both being played by Giancarlo Esposito, and both being highly expensive series from streaming services eye-ing up Netflix’s crown. But this second factor really is enough to make their comparison intriguing – Netflix proved the way forward for streaming services was quality original content with unprecedented production values. Their dominating position now is in no small part thanks to flagship series’ such as their House of Cards remake and The Crown. To challenge this position, the pretenders are trying to beat Netflix at their own game, and will hope that The Boys and The Mandalorian respectively will bring in new, loyal subscribers.

The Boys displays a level of violent gore and bloodlust perhaps unmatched even by fatalities in Mortal Kombat. This is not a show that children should be watching – not that that is exactly going to stop them. And although The Mandalorian is clearly more friendly for younger audiences, its references to previous material in the Star Wars universe, a habit which notably ramps up with this second season, seem to target the show more at seasoned fans of the franchise. After all, this is Star Wars. There are an awful lot of these fans – and its shown in the impressive streaming figures, with many speculating that it is almost single-handedly keeping Disney+ subscriber counts up. After all, Disney has little else on the platform in terms of brand-new content and are even conspicuously lacking the streaming availability of much of 20th Century Fox’s backlog, which Disney of course now has the rights to. Well, at least they have The Simpsons.

Enough of this meta-bickering, then. It’s time to get down to brass tacks – which is the better show? Well, let’s start with The Boys. The greatest thing about this show is its setting. It has a fantastic, high-concept premise. ‘What if superheroes existed, but they were mostly evil assholes who worked for a shadowy American mega-corporation’. It uses this premise to give us some great entertainment in its depictions of hypocrisy and caricatures of American culture – the first season scenes at the megachurch convention particularly come to mind. And although its attempts to comment on the contemporary political climate can sometimes be hit and miss, and straight up ham-fisted in the case of some latter parts of season 2, the show must be praised for taking risks, and when they pay off they pay off well. The second key win for The Boys is the viewing experience. The writers and directors of the series have a clear mastery of tension, and ratchet it up well, keeping the show in high gear throughout its two seasons. The cast must also be praised – I for one am not distracted by Karl Urban’s accent as I know some are, and Anthony Starr’s performance as ‘Homelander’ is show-stealing. Despite our main character, Huey, being rather bland and useless in a world of evil psychopaths and indestructible superheroes, the show does a great job of making us care about him and most other characters who serve as our leads in various subplots. It might be basic in places, and even a little soap-y, but we can’t help but be glued to our seats and ‘next episode’ buttons to see if our heroes prevail.

It is all the more perplexing, then, that this show was mostly released on a weekly basis. Far from feeling like an episodic series, The Boys is like a never-ending movie, a perpetually repeating second act that miraculously manages to fixate the audience’s attention. It is absolutely perfect for binging – episodes don’t have a distinct story of their own beyond their place in the larger plot, and their only structural requirement appears to be the setup of a cliffhanger for the next. Luckily, I only got into the show after its second season had finished – I watched the whole thing in under 4 days. I cannot imagine the infuriation of those who tried to catch the episodes as they came out. As much as I liked the show, I cannot pull from my brain a single distinctive episode I remember.

The Mandalorian, on the other hand, thrives off its episodic nature. Although each of its chapters are generally shorter, and the whole series does have an overarching story and objective, there is a clear, unique story to every episode. I have no will to go back and re-watch any individual episode of The Boys. I have no such reservations about The Mandalorian, which, much like the serialized Westerns of old whose influence it wears on its sleeve, has episodes enjoyable unto themselves. The Mandalorian is clearly trying to once again reconcile Lucasfilm’s relations with its fans, which have been left in disarray following the divisive choices made in The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker. In this respect it appears to be a resounding success. Unlike the sequel trilogy, which largely treated the original trilogy of Star Wars films as its only source material, and as such felt like they had a relationship to those movies similar to the Wolfenstein game series’ relationship to World War 2 (i.e. fan fiction), The Mandalorian returned to some of the key influences that inspired Star Wars in the first place, most importantly the works of Akira Kurosawa and Westerns.

And yet despite all these ‘good choices’, we feel there is something deeply missing in The Mandalorian. As I watch the episodes, I fail to properly get attached to the main character. I don’t feel an emotional desire for him to succeed as I feel for the main characters of The Boys. We end up caring more about ‘Baby Yoda’, a small green puppet that only makes googoo gaga noises, than about Mando himself. Perhaps it is because we barely ever see his face – people love Baby Yoda because he has big soppy eyes and looks cute. All we get from Mando is a gruff tone, an intimidating appearance, and a commitment to his creed.

So, in spite of the ground-breaking technology that went into this series (looking at the impressive real-time rendered virtual set here, and definitely not the horrendous CGI face we are treated to), well-made action, and general lack of serious errors at any turn, the show is hard to really engage with because you aren’t very emotionally invested. Perhaps it is the writing, or maybe for all the quality execution, this show’s premise never held a huge amount of potential. Maybe reaction to The Last Jedi pushed them a little too far away from trying to subvert our expectations. In the end, then, I’d have to favor the decent execution of a brilliant concept over a flawless execution of a mediocre concept, so in deciding a flat contest of the better show, The Boys edges it. Unless you consider yourself a big Star Wars fan, The Mandalorian could not be recommended over it. Whilst neither are going to be challenging The Wire or Breaking Bad for the title of greatest tv series of all time, they are both well-made and entertaining. Still, it looks as though neither are enough to challenge the Netflix’s throne – both are beaten hands down by The Queen’s Gambit.

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