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Netflix’s comedy finds Steve Carell and Greg Daniels reuniting to locate humor in the real-life strangeness of Donald Trump’s new branch of the military.
A couple weeks ago, taking a break from confusing reporters with his statements about the ongoing global pandemic, President Donald Trump flouted social distancing restrictions to pose with military advisers and a new flag for his vaunted Space Force initiative. He boasted about the development of a speedy new weapon, and, seeming not to remember its actual name, dubbed it “the super-duper missile.”
This is a thing that happened in real life. You can’t make this stuff up.
You could, of course, try to make this stuff up, but then you’d run up against the super-duper challenges experienced by Greg Daniels and Steve Carell on their new Netflix half-hour Space Force. Said challenges are twofold: how to satirize something that already arrives pre-satirized — it’s like an astronaut taking out a tube of prepared mush and announcing plans to chew every gooey bite 100 times — and where to find the humor in a situation with a real-life counterpart that’s a source of much discomfort.
Put a different way, for Space Force to work, Carell and Daniels — as capable a pair of satirists as we have (see The Office) — would need to come with their humorous focus and targets incredibly well honed. Through the first season, despite fitful highlights, that just isn’t there.
With Dr. Strangelove as a clear early template — though less so as the show progresses — Space Force stars co-creator Carell as General Mark R. Naird. Newly affixed with his fourth star, General Naird is put in charge of the president’s freshly announced Space Force program, with a mandate to have a boots-on-the-ground lunar landing by 2024. Actually, the president’s tweet says “boobs on the ground,” because the series is set in a world in which the unnamed president is prone to rash decisions, poorly edited tweets and irrational bluster that could put the country on the verge of World War III. You know. Fiction.
With no consultation, Mark moves his family — with cast regular Diana Silvers as daughter Erin and a recurring Lisa Kudrow as wife Maggie — to Colorado and begins the process of fulfilling the president’s goal with a ragtag team including John Malkovich as Dr. Adrian Mallory, a scientist whose altruistic aspirations for space exploration often run counter to Mark’s orders; Jimmy O. Yang as some sort of botanist or something; Tawny Newsome as a helicopter pilot with astronaut aspirations; and Ben Schwartz as a social media adviser with the colorful name of F. Tony Scarapiducci. The first season follows Mark and his team through training exercises, rocket tests and eventually the moon mission.
Things don’t go as planned, but man, there are a lot of spectacular guest stars and recurring figures along the way: Kaitlin Olson as an Elizabeth Holmes-esque vaunted tech wiz; Noah Emmerich as an air force commander named “Kick Grabaston”; Ginger Gonzaga doing an uncanny AOC impression as congresswoman Anabela Ysidro-Campos; the reliable Dan Bakkedahl as an exhausted Secretary of Defense; Jane Lynch, Diedrich Bader and Patrick Warburton as heads of other military branches; the magnificent Don Lake as Mark’s scatterbrained attaché; and the late, great Fred Willard as Mark’s increasingly senile father.
I wish I could say this was a loving and fitting sendoff for Willard, but he’s somewhere between wasted and stuck with a character whose allegedly humorous qualities aren’t explored beyond an uncomfortable single note. The same is true of so many of the supporting roles, treated as thin comic relief in a show that’s already supposed to be a comedy. They feel exactly like what they are: glorified day players who did improv for an afternoon rather than parts of any sort of organic satirical universe.
It all starts with Carell’s character, a blending of George C. Scott from Strangelove (he and Emmerich seem to have cut General Buck Turgidson down the middle) and Michael Scott from The Office — but without a clear awareness of how differently Michael Scott’s oblivious sexism and racism play when they’re coming from a man with access to billion-dollar weapons systems rather than a regional manager of a paper company.
For three episodes, Mark walks that familiar Michael Scott path of being a knucklehead for 90 percent of an episode and a well-intentioned softie for the last 10 percent, before an introspective Biosphere-inspired fourth episode attempts to rebuild the character from the ground up. Even after that, Mark is more an assemblage of things Carell does well — including his always surprising deftness as a romantic lead — rather than a fully formed character.
The series is a satire on a piece of globally (and cosmically) impactful policy that Daniels and Carell want to avoid treating as political or ideological. So other than a general “Isn’t this a wacky thing a wacky president thought up!” perspective, I don’t know what the show thinks is funny about the idea of a Space Force. And without that, it’s hard to see where Mark is supposed to be funny.
Long stretches of Space Force go by with a lax energy of generalized goofiness — Get Smart is another inspiration it can’t help but fall short of — but that doesn’t mean there aren’t stretches I enjoyed. Every episode has a couple of sharply delivered lines of dialogue. Certain performances — Malkovich and Lake in particular — have a welcome lunacy (moon pun intended) of their own. Certain relationships — Carell’s chemistry with Silvers and Kudrow, some sweetness with Yang and Newsome — give the show grounding.
And there are set pieces that point to the ambition of what Carell and Daniels are going for. The second episode includes a space chimp subplot that plays directly to my simian-loving heart. The fifth episode, directed with unexpected comic flair by the normally more dramatically inclined Dee Rees (Mudbound), is a fun ’80s underdog pastiche with a heaping dose of Stripes homage. And a later episode concludes with five minutes of perfectly captured joy that left me smiling ear to ear.
Space Force just isn’t close to consistent — especially in the first half of the season, the misses outweigh the hits — and even as it settles into itself a little more, it’s hard to buy all the eventual smoothing out of characters and plot lines from that choppy beginning. As star-studded, erratic sci-fi satires from spectacularly talented creators go, Space Force has a lot in common with HBO’s maddening Avenue 5. Maybe both shows will work through their kinks by a second season, but don’t go into this first set of Space Force episodes without expecting the rough patches.
Cast: Steve Carell, John Malkovich, Ben Schwartz, Diana Silvers, Tawny Newsome, Lisa Kudrow, Jimmy O. Yang, Noah Emmerich, Alex Sparrow, Don Lake
Creators: Steve Carell and Greg Daniels
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)