“Don’t try so hard to be perfect. You don’t have to be for people to like you—and it’s a little annoying.”
When TV dramas introduce teens who were raised in group homes, they almost always have a surly, antisocial personality—more Rick Tyler than Beth Chapel. What’s great about “Summer School: Chapter Two” is that it explores an entirely different way a kid might react to growing up in such a difficult environment. Ysa Penarejo’s Jennie—the daughter of former Green Lantern Alan Scott—is an almost pathological people-pleaser. After her kitchen-destroying fight with Courtney, she immediately shifts into perfect house guest mode, fawning over Pat and waking up early to cook pancakes for the Whitmore-Dugans. Though Jennie clearly has some deep and completely understandable anger at the unfair hand she’s been dealt in life, she tries to bury any flicker of negativity—both from those around her and seemingly from herself as well. Her survival tactic is to paper over difficult situations with a smile and a perky, ingratiating demeanor.
It’s a unique riff on a familiar foster kid archetype and a smart set-up for a character whose powers are tied to her emotions. It turns out the glowing green lantern that once belonged to Jennie’s dad is like the ultimate mood ring, revealing the anxiety, frustration, anger, and fear that Jennie constantly tries to hide from the world. And even worse: It’s a mood ring that has the ability to explode if it’s pushed too far. It’s a metaphor that a lot of teens—and Type A teen girls in particular—can probably relate too.
Indeed, one of the biggest strengths of Stargirl as a series is how much it puts teenage girls front and center. From nerdy, needy Beth to fiercely independent Yolanda to power-hungry Cindy to empathetic, impulsive Courtney, Stargirl has showcased a wide range of different types of teenage girls and the ways in which they interact with one another. And Jennie is yet another point in that the complicated constellation. While she quickly wins over Beth and Rick (not to mention Pat and Barbara), her arrival forces Courtney to do some complicated self-reckoning.
Jennie reminds Courtney of everything she once thought she was: A powerful “legacy” hero whose powers come directly from her long-lost biological father. Jennie’s also a natural leader with the ability to rally a team to her side—as she does when she wins over Yolanda in one introductory speech. Courtney’s suspicion and skepticism mostly stem from the fact that she’s jealous. It takes Pat to help her see that Jennie is actually struggling with many of the same problems that Courtney struggled with last season too: A sense of abandonment and a deep longing to connect with a dad she never really knew.
It’s a sharply written character conflict, although it suffers a bit from Stargirl’s blend of episodic and serialized storytelling. On the one hand, “Chapter Two” tries to present full arcs of Courtney letting go of her jealousy and Jennie embracing her Green Lantern powers, which leaves the episode feeling rushed and overstuffed. On the other hand, it’s also clear we’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of who Jennie is and how she’s going to fit into the show’s world, which leaves the episode feeling a little underbaked too—particularly in the jump from Jennie gaining her full Green Lantern powers to skipping town the next day.
Stargirl is a show that likes to throw a whole lot of balls into the air at once in a way that can be fun to watch but also a little frenetic at times too. For instance, the complex Jennie/Courtney dynamic battles for screentime with subplots for this season’s two big villains. After briefly glimpsing him in last year’s finale, we’re finally properly introduced to Shade a.k.a. Richard Swift (Jonathan Cake), a self-proclaimed collector of “old and curious things” who just happens to be the one member of the ISA who was left unaccounted for last season. He’s in Blue Valley to try to get his hands on the stuff that once belonged to William Zarick a.k.a. Wizard, which means he’s presumably on the hunt for the Eclipso gem—not realizing that Cindy already broke into Zarick’s storage unit to steal it for her own ends last season.
On paper, Cindy’s storyline feels like it’s designed to offer a parallel for Jennie’s. There’s lots ambiguity at play in these dueling stories of teenage girls and their complicated family histories. Jennie’s mindset doesn’t become fully clear until the moment she snaps at Courtney that her life isn’t picture perfect—she can’t even find her own long-lost brother, which is what she thought the Green Lantern Power Ring was taking her to. Elsewhere, Cindy thinks that Eclipso is a tool she can use to re-brainwash her stepmom Bobbie into the perfect doting mother, only to get an early warning that Eclipso has an agenda of his own. (He manipulates Bobbie into violent revenge in order to justify taking over Cindy’s body and consuming Bobbie’s “corrupt soul.”)
Yet the parallels aren’t as strong as they could be, and all that ambiguity doesn’t offer a ton to hold onto as the mysterious storylines unfold. Though I get the impulse to keep upping the stakes of this season’s villain arc, I wonder if it might’ve been better to save the Cindy storyline for a later episode and spend more time on Jennie this week. As is, the climax of the Jennie story feels rushed, while the Cindy/Bobbie stuff feels fairly detached from everything else.
Indeed, Stargirl is at its best when it’s operating on more stable storytelling ground. The biggest strength of the show’s second season is that the JSA is now much more comfortable working as a team. Courtney is willing to listen to Pat’s advice, rather than assume she knows better than him. Barbara knows to call her husband the second a smooth-talking stranger starts making inquiries about William Zarick. And not only does Pat immediately suss out Richard Swift’s real identity as Shade, he also decides to fill Courtney in on the return of an old JSA enemy—even though she’d just decided to put her life as Courtney Whitmore ahead of her job as Stargirl.
Brec Bassinger perfectly plays Courtney’s growing excitement at the fact that she doesn’t actually have to put superheroing aside for now. Bassinger’s delivery of “I’ll get my staff!” is a fantastic little button that drives home the fact that even as Courtney grows and matures, she’s always going to be defined by her giddy, optimistic delight at getting to be a superhero. Though Jennie uses her newfound powers of flight to hightail it out of Blue Valley (presumably to find her brother), she’s got a solid JSA team to return to whenever she’s ready.
- Okay, but where can I buy Courtney’s cute blueberry t-shirt?
- I really like the framing that being a hero is more about helping people than fighting bad guys—and that Courtney’s greatest superpower is her ability to see the good in others.
- When Luke Wilson whispers he sounds so much like his brother Owen.
- Dog comedy usually isn’t my jam, but everything with Max this week was very funny.
- Though Cindy isn’t exactly a redeemable villain, it’s still pretty horrifying to watch Eclipso manipulate her: “I’m in control. Me. My body is mine.”
- This week’s Luke Wilson Scene I Could Watch For An Hour: The way he uses his doofy “aww shucks” demeanor to get close enough to Richard Swift to pick up details about his true identity.
- Tune in next week for the exhilarating reveal of what junk food Rick will bring to the woods next!