Whether deliberate or not, Netflix’s new original comedy, Space Force, cannily dropped over the same weekend that SpaceX became the first commercial company to send NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. The perfect backdrop for a new show primed to capitalise on a renewed interest in space flight — as well as to take some satirical swipes at Trump’s own, actual, Space Force.
Sadly, this Space Force fails to lift-off, despite boasting the reunited forces of The Office: An American Workplace ‘s (2005–13) showrunner Greg Daniels and star Steve Carell. It’s brimming with fun ideas, most of which fail to live up to their comic potential. Most troubling of all, it is consistently and bizarrely devoid of laughs, unforgiveably so. Though often smartly written, it rarely raises more than a quiet smirk. This is such a shame for a show whose setup could not be more prescient.
The show’s opening sees Carrell’s straight-laced and newly promoted General Mark Naird placed in charge of the recently founded ‘Space Force’. “POTUS wants boots on the Moon by 2024”, he is instructed (via Twitter, of course). We immediately jump forward one year to find Naird trying, and failing, to run a highly dysfunctional half spaceport-half military base, out in the middle of the Colorado desert.
Dedicated as he is to the task at hand, he struggles to spend any quality time with disenfranchised teenage daughter Erin (Booksmart‘s Diana Silvers). But the plot soon contrives to have her employed at the base’s cosmic-themed ice cream truck, so she can at least conveniently bump into Dad whenever he needs reminding that family is more important than work. His wife Maggie (Lisa Kudrow), is incarcerated in a nearby maximum-security prison. A running gag being that it is never made clear why she was locked up and for how long. Beyond the deftly handled ‘Conjugal Visit’ episode, Kudrow is criminially wasted.
While only ever referred to via his acronym, Space Force’s POTUS is not so much a Trump-cypher as simply Trump himself — the show more or less regurgitates what ‘our’ Trump has previously said, done or tweeted. This feels like a missed opportunity and often downright lazy for such a venerable comic team. And while we’re well past the point of actually being able to satirise the self-satirising Commander In Chief, it’s nonetheless clear that Space Force would be better served by a President of their own creation —a Republican Jed Bartlett, perhaps.
Space Force also features several side characters who make for some of the thinnest, thinly veiled parodies ever seen on television. These include three sceptical Democrats: Representative Pitosi, Senator Schugler and, wait for it… Senator Anabela Ysidro-Campos. You see what they did there? These cameos fail to work as either SNL-esque takedowns or Veep-esque riffs on their rel-life counterparts. Along with the off-screen ‘Trump’, these serve only to position the show, oddly, as reality-adjacent.
That said, one ‘real-life’ character that does have traction is that of tech-guru Edison Jaymes (Always Sunny’s Kaitlin Olson) — an inspired splicing of Elon Musk and former Theranos CEO, Elizabeth Holmes. Jaymes tries to convince Space Force to buy her supposedly environmentally friendly rocket-fuel. Of course the so-called ‘skinny fuel’ is anything but, and Jaymes is nothing more than a top-knotch snake oil seller — as was the now discredited Holmes. This particular episode hits the mark where so many others do not. A spikey bit of commentary on the cult of personality in big-tech — and how the likes of Elon Musk (SpaceX), Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic) and Geoff Bezos (Blue Origin) are, for better or worse, inextricably tied to the future of space flight.
If you do manage to stick through Space Force’s mercifully short first season, it will likely be thanks to one man: John Malkovich. While Carrell, clearly keen to avoid replicating too much Michael Scott energy, is a little stiff, Malkovich delivers a delightfully sardonic turn as Chief Scientist, Dr Adrian Mallory. Impeccably dressed throughout in geography-teacher-chic, he proves to be the real heart of the show.
Mallory, a passionate man of science, struggles to click with his military colleagues and couldn’t care less for POTUS’ wish for ‘space dominance’. He only wishes that their projects be evidence-based, that their decision-making is rational and that they collaborate with rival space agencies, not incite them. It is warming to have such a character be co-lead of a big new show — an elite-level nerd who is loveable but never insufferable. And while Naird & Mallory are hardly Kirk & Spock, their odd-couple repartee is invariably touching.
Perhaps it’s because the show as a whole falls short of its evidently grand aspirations, while failing to deliver any truly satisfying comic punches, that it leaves one feeling so undernourished for something with such rich potential. Space Force, frustratingly, turns out to be more of a small step than a giant leap.
Originally published at https://www.jamesrmcandrew.com on June 9, 2020.