REVIEW: Space Force, Season 1

Space Force

Space Force is the newest comedy from Netflix that, despite all its lofty ambitions, tragically fails to launch.

This is the latest project from Greg Daniels and Steve Carrell so comparisons to both The Office and Parks and Recreation are inevitable. Carrell stars as Mark Naird, a straitlaced military man who is tasked to head the newest branch of the armed forces, an assignment he is none too pleased with. But he tries his best to balance the administration’s ridiculous demands and the reasonable objections of a beleaguered scientific team.

Space ForceIn a world where life is actually stranger than fiction, Space Force is an unusual entity. While it ostensibly aims to be a scathing satire of the Trump administration,  with its references to a nameless POTUS who wants to have dominion over space (“boots on the moon”) and who makes controversial remarks on Twitter, it also wants to be a workplace sitcom, a bit of a family drama, and even a reflection on the price of progress.

And that’s the main problem with Space Force: it hasn’t quite decided what it wants to be. It has elements of the political satire of Veep (the war room scenes) but does not commit to this and does not even come close to Veep‘s way of taking real-life politics in its stride. Space Force then tries give its characters more depth and heart (Parks and Recreation, The Office) but it doesn’t quite balance it out either. If Space Force wants to remain in orbit, it will have to strike the right tone and figure out what it really is. Otherwise, the whole endeavor might turn out to be a tragic waste of talent.

Space Force‘s identity crisis is most effectively displayed in its protagonist as Steve Carrell’s Mark Naird does not come across as a consistently written character at all. Carrell makes a noble effort to give his character nuance and Carrell’s prodigious talent is painfully wasted on a character who is sometimes the voice of reason surrounded by incompetents (like in the war room scenes) or is sometimes the kind buffoon who believes a monkey in space can repair a broken satellite.

A standout episode, however, is the “Lunar Habitat” where we actually get to see a more human and relatable side to Naird. But the rest of the series just keeps throwing him into more and more absurd situations that he is not fully equipped to handle and while this should be a formula for comedy gold, it doesn’t work.

John Malkovich, unsurprisingly, is the standout of the series as Dr. Adrian Mallory, delivering his characteristic world-weary performance and giving depth to a character who does not have much of this on the page. As chief scientist on the team, he often has to put up with an extraordinary incompetence and he tempers his outbursts with just the right amount of sadness and frustration. His chemistry with Carrell is strong and it’s their growing relationship that fuels much of the show. As expected, he steals every scene he is in and I must specifically mention how much I enjoyed his correct pronunciation of “aide-de-camp.”

Jimmy O. Yang and Tawny Newsome as Dr. Chan Kaifang and Capt. Angela Ali are also among the better written characters and their relationship develops fairly organically, though I wish this connection had not been so obviously foreshadowed earlier in the season when Yang’s character extolled the virtues of relationships formed between black women and Asian men. As soon as Ali interacted with him, it was clear where this was heading. Still, they have some pretty strong moments together and they actually understand each other better than the others.

There is a striking contrast between the politician and high-authority characters in the show who come across as caricatures more than characters while those in the space mission are, ironically, more grounded. Though Naird’s personal assistant is forever incompetent and his social media director, played by Ben Schwartz, is still basically Jean-Ralphio in a different workplace.

Even less successful is Carrell’s mess of familial relationships (though the show does feature the brilliant Fred Willard in his last role as Naird’s father.) While Mark and his wife actually have some really mature conversations about the state of their relationship (Lisa Kudrow is criminally underused in the series), his relationship with his daughter always comes across as an unwelcome distraction from the main plot. Diana Silvers makes a valiant effort to give her character depth and relatability but really, she can’t help but come across as whiny and annoying, with the typical egocentrism that makes television teenagers so insufferable. While her anxiety about moving to a new place is relatable, it always comes across as exceedingly trivial when compared with the scale of problems her father has to deal with.

More intriguing is her mother’s situation and the mystery behind Lisa Kudrow’s imprisonment. Obviously, this is a plot thread Space Force wants to keep ambiguous for as long as possible but it does mean that, regrettably, we see less of Kudrow, who is one of the strongest members of the cast.

Space ForceSpace Force does have a problem with its female characters, not only because it has only a handful of major ones but because these few have the potential to be more compelling than the rest of the male cast but are never given the screen time to shine. Newsome is the strongest of the lot but she is often sidelined. Kudrow, as mentioned, does not appear as much as she should and Silvers needs better material. This would not be such an issue if Space Force wasn’t so dominated by an extensive cast of male characters, mostly badly written anyway. Hopefully, this gender balance will be addressed if the show gets future seasons.

An identity crisis, an uneven tone, and vaguely sketched-out characters – while these are common problems with most freshman seasons of comedies, one would think that the writers would have learned from the mistakes of the past by now. Perhaps they were dazzled by the Netflix budget and the high production value. But it’s, sadly, yet another case of style over substance, of impressive sets and visual effects trumping quality writing.

The problem with this seemingly prestigious Netflix project is that the hype surrounding it leads to unbelievably high expectations (nigh-impossible even.) Not helping is the precedent set by previous excellent shows that reached such heights with limited resources. Space Force had none of these disadvantages and so the disappointment it engenders is all the greater. Its own privilege has become its downfall.

Ultimately, since Space Force has not yet decided what it wants to be, it ends up being a hodgepodge of various good shows which is mediocre at best and ridiculous at worst. In its quest to be everything, it ends up being nothing.

There is hope for it yet, of course, and there is more than enough potential for it to be good. Certainly the talent involved deserves better than the lackluster end product. But Space Force needs to do some serious course-correcting before it can even join the ranks of its less ambitious but far more superior predecessors. If it aims to reach for the stars, Space Force needs to build a rocket that can actually launch.