‘Space Force’ Tells a Terrible Joke About America

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In the first episode, Mark Naird (Carell) is a starchy general receiving his fourth star and hoping to be promoted to the head of the Air Force, when he’s tasked instead to lead the new Space Force by an erratic, unnamed POTUS with an itchy Twitter finger. (“Boots on the moon by 2024” is the founding mission, although the president accidentally mistypes it as “boobs.”) Naird, who remakes his bed at night when he gets up to use the bathroom and marches rather than walks, is dismayed by the new gig, but not nearly as much as his family is. A year later, he’s wrangling the launch of a $6 billion rocket at his new top-secret base, while his wife, Maggie (Lisa Kudrow, shamefully neglected), is serving a 40-year prison sentence for a crime that goes unspecified, and his teenage daughter, Erin (Diana Silvers of Booksmart), is isolated and resentful.

Space Force’s insistent but half-drawn focus on Naird’s family is odd, because it seems to imply dramatic ambitions, or even a kind of sentimentality, that aren’t otherwise remotely realized. There’s no room for that kind of character work and emotional commitment in a comedy so otherwise dedicated to the inanity of American power. The jokes come thick and fast and feeble: Bombing things is the default answer to diplomatic snafus; the “U.S. boots” on the moon are made in Mexico; ships are equipped with purely decorative assault rifles so that manufacturers can claim to have, as one character puts it, “the official Space Force gun for committing mass shootings on the moon.” By order of the White House, one rocket is sent into orbit with a dog and a chimp on board, for the purpose of creating cutesy viral videos. The president is in the pocket of the Russians. The Appropriations Committee balks at funding medical research on rats to create new antibiotics, but doles out the cash whenever anyone mentions two simple words: “American defense.”

John Malkovich (left), the Space Force’s disdainful head scientist, is the best reason to watch Space Force. (Netflix)

The current state of the real-world culture war is summarized in the ongoing conflict between two characters: Carell’s Naird and John Malkovich’s Dr. Adrian Mallory, the Space Force’s head scientist and a debonair, knit-tie-wearing professorial type who’s the intellectual yin to Naird’s impulsive, reactive yang. (“All right, so we’re going into battle and you’re dressed like Annie Hall,” Naird sneers as he and Mallory prepare for a loaded, highly competitive game of Space Flag that will test suits designed by competing defense contractors.) Malkovich, who radiates disdain throughout, is the best reason to watch Space Force, and his character’s evolving relationship with Naird is the closest thing the show has to an arc. Otherwise, every bold name on the list of supporting cast members feels wasted: Noah Emmerich as the bullying, libidinous head of the Air Force, Fred Willard (in his final role) as Naird’s deteriorating father, Jane Lynch as the smart-mouthed head of the Navy, Kaitlin Olson as a tech titan whose empire is built on scams and rocket fuel the color of rosé.