Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel
Steve Carell and Greg Daniels, creators of the landmark American version of The Office, have reteamed for the Netflix series Space Force. The ten episodes follow General Mark Naird (Carell) as he is appointed head of the newly minted U.S. military branch Space Force. Naird (yes, to sound almost — but not quite — like “nerd”) moves his family to White Horse, Colorado. The action jumps forward a year with a plot driven by the unseen and unnamed United States president’s desire to have “boots on the moon.”
It is revealed that Naird’s wife (Lisa Kudrow, giving a strangely middle-of-the-road performance) is in prison, serving forty years. The reason is never revealed; this is just one of many threads that are introduced and then abandoned. Naird is now fully responsible for his teenage daughter Erin. Dianna Silvers plays the girl in a constant state of petulance; the actor, at twenty-two, does not pass for a high school junior.
Naird’s foil is John Malkovich’s scientist Adrian Mallory, a voice of reason. Malkovich gives a wry and restrained performance which generates contrast with the parade of over-the-top military and government figures. However, his relationship with Naird doesn’t so much progress as it shifts when it is convenient to the plot. Sometimes, it seems that Carell and Malkovich are in a rather strained astral buddy comedy. The inconsistency in the writing for Malkovich/Mallory only gets by because of the actor’s ability to make eccentrics accessible.
Much of the topical humor is given to Ben Schwartz as F. Tony Scarapiducci (who has an unprintable nickname) as the social media director. Schwartz is channeling his intentionally insufferable Jean-Ralphio from Parks and Recreation.
Naird’s nemesis is Air Force General Kick Grabaston. Noah Emmerich plays him like every bullying university president trying to shut down the partying fraternity.
Tawny Newsome does her best with Captain Ali. Initially, she seems peripheral but eventually becomes more central to the story. Her growing romance with likable Jimmy O. Yang’s Dr. Kaifang is sweet but either predictably clumsy or clumsily predictable.
It seems that Carell and Daniels did not establish a unifying style and tone. It wants to be satire but tips towards spoof. There are thin political jokes that are low hanging fruit, with easy jabs at current politics. There is a less than thinly veiled congressional hearing that climaxes with Naird giving a touching speech about the importance of humanity in the space race. This is juxtaposed with characters that are poorly concealed imitations of contemporary legislators.
Political satire can be done outrageously and hilariously without losing its edge; Veep showed this. Here, the creators seem to be hedging their bets. Is it Michael G. Scott Goes to the Moon? Or Airplane III: Team Lunar? Does it aspire to be Dr. Strangelove Redux? Yes, it is all of these — sort of. There are shades of sentimental dramedy exploring the difficulty of being a single parent. It is a send-up of all things media. Basically, Space Force is a watered down version of a whole range of tropes and genres. The result is light beer and water — all the same and less.
By not committing to a style, it becomes a string of set-ups for either ridiculous jokes (uniforms designed by the First Lady) or instants of great introspection, capped off by earnest speeches. Instead of character development, there is “The Monkey Episode,” “The Washington Episode,” “The Lunar Habitat Episode,” etc. It all feels vaguely sitcom. Eventually, the stakes are raised but, by then, it is too late.
There are many well-known television actors filling out the ensemble. Don Lake plays the one-star general who serves as Naird’s dogsbody; it’s the same bumbling, amusing performance that he has given in the Christopher Guest movies. Patrick Warburton, Jane Lynch, Diedrich Bader, and Dan Bakkedahl are various members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: They’re gifted actor/comedians saddled with toothless caricatures of all that is wrong in government. Kaitlin Olson (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) appears in one episode as phony Edison Jaymes, a character suggested by Elon Musk. This was Fred Willard’s final appearance; he plays Naird’s confused father in his usual whimsical style; it is a bit hard to swallow as it is really a dementia joke.
Carell is the creator and star and obviously driving force behind Space Force. He is an actor who is long on charm and has done both exceptional comedic and dramatic work. However, it seems that he is trying to draw equally from both wells.
What made The Office’s Michael Scott work was that he was a buffoon but consistent onto himself. He made excruciating decisions but they came from a lack of true self-awareness. Scott was wholly human in a mundane world. Here, Carell seems to have taken elements of Scott and grafted them onto the gravel-voiced Naird, but they haven’t fully taken. Is he a buffoon? Are the monkeys running the circus? Too many questions and very few answers.
By the end, he seems to have “grown” but it seems strained. The final episode is a horrifying and ugly mismatch of tones — when is attempted self-immolation ever funny? — and ends annoyingly, ridiculously incomplete.
There is a moment in episode three where, with great exasperation, John Malkovich labors up and down staircases; he moves quickly but jerkily. In essence, that is the entire Space Force series: it moves forward with purpose but not without a great deal of frustration.