Steve Carell's military comedy Space Force is a title in search of a show: Review
Let’s start by clearing up two misconceptions, both of which I held before watching the new Netflix comedy Space Force: Donald Trump did not invent the U.S. Space Force, which he announced in June of 2018; Congress has been debating the idea of creating a separate military branch in space for years, most recently with a proposal for a “Space Corps” in 2017.
And, as it turns out, Space Force — the show co-created by The Office’s Greg Daniels and Steve Carell, who also stars — is definitely not a satirical takedown of Trump and his grand galaxy plans. In the run-up to the show's launch, both Daniels and Carell have insisted that they're not interested in taking sides in Space Force, which is entirely their prerogative. But in their efforts to remain apolitical, Daniels and Carell have failed to give their series any discernible point of view, delivering instead an innocuous and startlingly unfunny sitcom about military bureaucracy.
Just minutes after receiving his fourth star, Air Force General Mark Naird (Carell) learns that the (fictional, unnamed) president has decided to put him in charge of his newly-created Space Force — which he’s announcing with a tweet, natch. Swallowing his disappointment with a spoonful of duty, Naird moves his wife Maggie (Lisa Kudrow) and teenage daughter Erin (Diana Silvers) to a base in Wild Horse, Colorado, where he and his team will work to make POTUS’ dream — “boots on the moon in 2024” — a reality.
One year and no successes later, Naird plows ahead with a test-missile launch for a visiting group of senators — despite the repeated warnings from Space Force scientists Dr. Chan Kaifang (Jimmy O. Yang) and Dr. Adrian Mallory (John Malkovich). But Naird has little patience for facts when they interfere with his results, and he repeatedly clashes with the scientists tasked with making the moon inhabitable for “spacemen” (as Space Force recruits are called). “As a scientist you have a loyalty to reason,” Naird tells Mallory. “Makes you a little untrustworthy.” Episode two features an extended, silly sequence in which Naird insists on having a “chimpstronaut” perform a spacewalk to repair an expensive satellite; you get the sense that the scenes exist because someone in the writers’ room thought “chimpstronaut” was a funny word.
Space Force (premiering May 29) started as a two-word pitch from Netflix, and it often plays like a show that was reverse-engineered around a title. Everything about it, from the character names to the plotting, feels decidedly first-draft. Naird’s nemesis is the Air Force chief of staff (The Americans’ Noah Emerich), a womanizing loudmouth named General — wait for it — Grabaston. Captain Angela Ali (Brockmire’s Tawny Newsome) begins the season as a Space Force helicopter pilot and ends it, inexplicably, leading an expedition to the moon.
Daniels and Carell, meanwhile, can’t seem to decide who they want their protagonist to be. Is Naird an insufferable buffoon who says things like “I am what used to be known in America as a man” and self-soothes by singing “Kokomo,” or is he just a good-hearted guy desperately trying to hold it together under intense pressure from a “chaotic” D.C. administration and unforeseen obstacles at home? Maggie no longer lives with her family (it’s a spoiler to say why), but she and Mark remain deeply committed to each other. Some of the best and most authentic moments in Space Force have nothing to do with Space Force, as Maggie and Mark navigate how best to keep their marriage intact while living apart indefinitely. (On the managing expectations front, a note: Kudrow appears in just five of Space Force’s 10 episodes.)
By far the most enjoyable thing about Space Force is John Malkovich, who drapes his weird and languid charisma over every frame he’s in. We first encounter Dr. Mallory in Naird’s office, sprawled comfortably on the General’s sofa. “My idea of success would not be a six-billion-dollar piece of hardware breaking up over Denver,” he drawls, each word elongated yet perfectly enunciated. The actor is equally exhilarating in Mallory’s more frantic moments, whether screaming about the guy who used to steal his pencils at IBM or barking out the international country code for China.
There’s an immense amount of talent on screen in Space Force, from the main ensemble to the recurring cast, which includes Jane Lynch, Patrick Warburton, Diedrich Bader, Fred Willard, Ben Schwartz, Dan Bakkedahl, and Jessica St. Clair. What the show lacks is any kind of comedic vision, or even a fully-formed concept. If space is a vacuum, Force is a kind of TV black hole: A-list stars and lots of Netflix money go in, and what comes out is a big old nothing. Grade: C+
Space Force premieres Friday, May 29 on Netflix