Baby Yoda Is Your God Now

Baby Yoda Is Your God Now
By: WNG NYT Posted On: December 12, 2019 View: 45

Baby Yoda Is Your God Now

First, a confession. I have not yet written about Disney Plus’s “The Mandalorian” — the biggest new TV show from the big new platform of the biggest media conglomerate, set within arguably America’s biggest pop mythology — because I was not able to figure out what the hell “The Mandalorian” is.

It’s a Western, kind of? It’s a little bit of a buddy comedy, a little bit of a throwback to the fun-for-all-ages adventure anthologies of TV’s earliest days. It’s sort of a hero’s redemptive quest, but one with its hero shielded and obscured, and not just by the helmet that perversely keeps us from ever seeing the face of the charismatic and beautiful Pedro Pascal.

It’s also, in the immortal words of Lucille Bluth, “a Star War” — that is, it’s made up largely of the action sequences and light moments that fill out the middles of “Star Wars” movies, without the encumbering larger narratives. It’s the sort of show that just opens with someone’s being shot at in a space dogfight, with no setup or introduction, and you accept it because you just assume that this is how people in this universe spend 99 percent of their time.

But for all its expense and big-screen legacy, there’s little to dig into. In an age of massive streaming sagas with encyclopedic plots and marathon run times, it runs a crisp 40 minutes or less. It’s nearly plot-free. Mando and his little olive-drab carry-on land somewhere, they get in a scrape, they get out of it, bingo-bango we’re done.

It’s almost perfectly watchable. It’s ridiculously predictable, but that’s part of the pleasure. If you didn’t know, early in the first episode, that the tough, laconic bounty hunter’s quarry would turn out to be a vulnerable creature that would introduce a moral dilemma, then I would submit that you have never watched a TV show or movie.

But of course that’s the miracle of it. The show invites you to return to that state when stories were new to you, when you hadn’t seen it all, when you hadn’t seen any of it, when you didn’t try to solve or defeat stories but just let them wash over you and amaze you.

And I do. I gobble every “Mandalorian” the day it’s posted. It’s a joy. And then it’s gone. Unlike a “Game of Thrones” or “Succession” or “Mr. Robot,” there’s no vast mythology or subtext to engage with. Grapple with it, and it evanesces like smoke clutched in a mailed fist. It’s like the show never existed, until Friday comes and it does again.

Only one thing remains: Baby Yoda.

Baby Yoda, all week on my social media and news feeds. Baby Yoda GIFs and Baby Yoda memes. Baby Yoda messing with the control panel of Mando’s spaceship. Baby Yoda raising a tiny hand to summon the Force. Baby Yoda, berobed and enigmatically sipping broth, the cup digitally altered to say, “My house / My rules / My coffee.”

And this, I realized, is what “The Mandalorian” really is — at least from the standpoint of what TV is becoming in the year 2019. “The Mandalorian” is merely the ship. Baby Yoda is the cargo.

Baby Yoda’s attraction, like that of “The Mandalorian,” seems all there on the surface. Just look at that punim! If you’re an adult, you want to nurture him; if you’re a child, you want to play with him. He is vulnerable — we are biologically wired to protect that tiny form and those big eyes — but also, from all we know of the Force and his look-alike who wielded it, almost unimaginably powerful.

His appeal is rooted in the “Star Wars” myth, and even deeper. An infant of mysterious parentage imbued with the life force of the universe: It’s almost Christmas, and I don’t need to connect the rest of these dots for you, but other people already have, putting the foundling and his hover-cradle into cosmic nativity scenes.

He is not, barring some time-bending twist, actually Yoda. He may or may not be a baby — who knows the biology of whatever the hell species it is — but the script identifies him, quasi-religiously, as “The Child.”

He is curious and rascally, a wizened little Pixar character. Where his elder forebear was all twisted syntax and ’70s-’80s self-help speak — actualize yourself, you must — the little guy doesn’t speak. This seals the emotional deal. The “Star Wars” galaxy is full of creations — R2-D2, the jawas, the porgs — that endear themselves by speaking unintelligibly or not at all. (Jar Jar Binks’s greatest sin was opening his mouth.)

I am not made of beskar. I see those floppy ears and jawbreaker eyes and I’m a puddle of hot bone broth, like anyone else.

But we must also face the other half of Baby Yoda’s appeal — not the baby part but the Yoda part. Yes, The Child is vulnerable, adorable, whimsical, cuddly — but what made him an instant celebrity was that he was all those things in the form of a decades-old character that you already recognized and loved.

And of course, “Thing that you already recognize and love” is the animating force in entertainment today, particularly the movies, where Disney has made or bought a vast stable of superhero and sci-fi icons, and rakes in billions by deploying their intellectual property — “I.P.,” like the name of a model line of battle droids — into theaters everywhere. Avengers, jedi, princesses — presold, prerecognized and preloved.

Disney Plus is barely a month old, but it suggests a vision of streaming TV much like Disney’s multiplex strategy, based on already familiar brands. Besides “The Mandalorian,” there are or will be series based on “Toy Story 4,” the Marvel universe, “Monsters Inc.,” “High School Musical” and, again, “Star Wars.”

If you are old enough to remember the original “Star Wars” trilogy, you remember a stretch of over a decade when the idea of any more story beyond those three movies was just a cruel tease. Now you can get more of it as easily as you get tap water — you will get more, whether you think it’s a good idea or not.

And at the head of all this comes Baby Yoda, defying you to have a problem with that. Yes, this is a corporate entertainment hegemon, encroaching to conquer TV as it did the movies — but look at how it sips its little soupy cup! How can you be mad at that?

“The Mandalorian” is a delightful and artful entertainment. It’s also Disney saying, yes, we will re-gift you your childhood, over and over — but it will also be new, and cute, and genuinely inventive, and tweaked just an acceptable amount. It will gainfully employ brilliant people like Werner Herzog and Amy Sedaris. It will use the talents of visual artists who will combine the best of popcorn movies and art film, within the parameters of the franchises we need them to work in.

And you will help create it! Part of what made Baby Yoda a phenomenon was that he did not feel imposed from above — “Baby Yoda” is our name, not Disney’s — and his character, his place in the year’s pop vocabulary, was created as much by the fans smithing online memes as it was by the show itself.

Amazingly, Disney was not prepared with a mountain of Baby Yoda merchandise for the holidays, leaving it to play catch-up. (Equally amazingly, Baby Yoda GIFs were briefly purged from the internet, though it proved not to be Disney’s doing.)

This appears to be simply an uncharacteristic business screw-up. But seen another way, it was an act of devious marketing genius.

It meant that Baby Yoda, at least at the outset, was not something you could buy. You had to find him for yourself. You had to engage in the act of creation, and therefore feel that you had ownership in the viral guerrilla success of a piece of one of the largest entertainment franchises that ever existed. Baby Yoda, in this conception, was not some vulgar character to be licensed. He was a quest, a divine path.

If TV had a Person of the Year for 2019, Baby Yoda would be it. He is lovable and terrifying. He may well grow up to be our master.

But not, I hope, our only one. I want more from TV than what I already know. And maybe because I was a child raised on “Star Wars” — which was once, hard as it now is to remember, a risky new creation — I’m still an optimist.

It does feel as if we’re beginning another era of television, one in which the boundaries between TV and movies are dissolving not just formally but also commercially, so that streaming-era TV might become as franchise-dominated as the summer blockbuster season is.

But television is also big, in a way even the movies can’t be, distributed across hundreds of channels and increasingly the internet. For now, at least, it’s still growing; more intellectual-property-based TV doesn’t have to mean less novel and idiosyncratic TV. (And as shows like “Watchmen” demonstrate, every now and then intellectual-property-based TV can also be novel and idiosyncratic.)

Think one more time about where Baby Yoda came from. “Star Wars,” in all its eras and forms, is about a galaxy so vast and unruly that even at the apex of mighty empires, there are untamed, free and lawless zones.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m trying to talk myself out of a hard truth because it’s more comforting and more fun to stop worrying and just love the little green guy. Maybe Disney and its competitors will prove more all-conquering than even the Empire.

But until then, I feel …

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