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Steve Carell (center) leads the cast of the new Netflix series “Space Force,” which is set near the fictionalized Colorado town of Wild Horse. (Provided by Netflix)
On “The Office,” Steve Carell portrayed Michael Scott, a dim but somewhat-likable boss who constantly offended his desk-bound employees while learning awkward lessons about the limits of his power.
Played for laughs, Scott’s frequent harassment and ineptitude feels markedly less benign in May 2020 than when the show aired in the late 2000s and early 2010s, trapped as we are in a time where insults to identity and personal freedom are existential threats, not just eye-rolling annoyances.
“Space Force,” Netflix’s new, big-budget workplace comedy about President Donald Trump’s space-superiority initiative, has a similar problem. Conceived and produced before the age of coronavirus, the show’s satire feels suddenly and fundamentally toothless, at once disconnected from the societal collapse many Americans are witnessing and implicitly passive toward its most detestable characters.
More important, it’s not funny. Creators and executive producers Carell and Greg Daniels (“The Office,” “Parks and Recreation”) cannot be blamed for the timing of the show’s release, but they can be blamed for making a boring sitcom. Premiering May 29 on Netflix, the 10-episode first season was announced more than a year ago, and doubtlessly written and shot prior to anything resembling our current predicament. (One unintentional reminder is Fred Willard as Naird’s senile father. Willard died on May 15 and the first episode is dedicated to him.)
Carell, looking grayer and more barrel-chested than usual, plays four-star general Mark R. Naird, a decorated pilot now navigating the shiny halls of the Pentagon. When the president — never named and only referred to as “The President” or “POTUS” — capriciously orders the creation of a Space Force, it’s met with surprise and derision by the show’s joint chiefs.
They’re played by a cast of ringers, including Jane Lynch, Diedrich Bader, Patrick Warburton and Noah Emmerich. Only Emmerich, as the cocky Air Force chief Kick Grabaston (subtle, no?), has any real agency as the thorn in Naird’s side.
There’s no attempt at documentary-style intrigue or verisimilitude; these generals are careerist buffoons whose motivations begin and end at protecting their own butts. Their schoolyard taunts and embarrassing blind spots seem patterned after Trump and his appointees. The idea of Space Force is so inherently ridiculous that at one point Naird must assert, “This is not a joke!”
How sad is it that a real general had to say that recently?
The new Colorado-set Netflix comedy “Space Force” stars Steve Carrel (left) and John Malcovich. (Photo by Aaron Epstein, provided by Netflix)
“This is not a farce. This is nationally critical,” said Gen. John Raymond, who was picked to lead the real-life Space Force, in December.
It’s another example of reality being almost too laughable to skewer, as thousands of enlisted people and dutiful public servants are tasked with the ill-defined whims of an ill-informed Commander in Chief. The show only addresses this in fits and spurts. When Naird is told he must move to Colorado for the job, wife Maggie (Lisa Kudrow) buries her head in her hands and begins gently sobbing. Naird tells her Colorado is up-and-coming, and that Amazon decided to put its new national headquarters there.
“Really?” Maggie responds in disbelief.
“No,” Naird says, “but they seriously considered it.”
In a workplace comedy, the larger setting only occasionally comes into play, and “Space Force” is no different. The fictionalized town of Wild Horse, Colorado, serves as backdrop (Wild Horse is a real town near the Kansas border, but here it’s at the foot of the mountains). Most of the action, however, takes place on the Space Force campus — a visual hybrid of Cheyenne Mountain and Colorado Springs’ Air Force Academy. In a sight-gag cribbed from Looney Tunes, it’s hidden in a valley behind a faux-wall (the tunnel behind it is a nod to Colorado’s NORAD).
None of it appears to have been filmed here, minus a second-unit shot of Naird driving through what looks like Vail. A passing reference to Wild Horse deems it a place where popularity is defined “by dirt bikes and how much Mountain Dew you can chug.” Ouch.
Flash forward a year, and Naird is fully embedded in Space Force, preparing to launch a $6 billion satellite called Epsilon 6. His employees range from the brilliant scientist Dr. Adrian Mallory (John Malkovich) to the Space Force captain Angela Ali (Tawny Newsome), who dutifully ferries Naird around in helicopters and vans. His high school daughter, Erin (“Booksmart” breakout Diana Silvers), is there to be wooed by Russian “observer” Yuri (Alex Sparrow), while Kudrow’s character essentially disappears in a plot twist.
Minor players such as Naird’s loopy receptionist Brad (Don Lake) and media consultant Tony (Ben Schwartz, again playing a version of Jean-Ralphio from “Parks and Rec”) add color. But it’s the scientists and other on-base characters who generate the most sparks in their clashes with Naird, such as Dr. Chan Kaifang (Jimmy O. Yang) and orange-vested contractor Kelly King (Jessica St. Clair).
The initially claustrophobic framing gives way to wider shots packed with people and activity. Generals are larded with endless decorative stripes and bars, and constant, hasty salutes become a kind of balletic comedy on their own. There’s just enough science to give the scripts a procedural tension, but the world of “Space Force” is, as noted, a bit too close to our own to be comfortably funny (It’s one where the unnamed president texts Carell petty missives on a secure phone).
Gen. Mark R. Naird (Steve Carell) prepares to press a symbolic button in the new Netflix series “Space Force.” (Photo by Aaron Epstein, provided by Netflix)
Carell, too, plays an old guy in a millennial world, jingoistic but essentially well-meaning in his patriotism. He feels no cognitive dissonance decrying the presence of politics in military discussions, then turning around and making arrogant, destructive decisions based on impatience but not science.
The distance the show asks us to travel — from orbiting “chimpstronauts” to tender moments between Carell and his daughter — feels separated by oceans. Tropes and stock characters aside, the shaky tone never commits fully to either crassness (despite ample profanity) or prestige TV (despite having those production values).
Even with the assemblage of talent and scattered local references, “Space Force” doesn’t compel me to continue watching. Do I really want to be reminded how venal and stupid the leaders of this country are? Again, the timing is not Carell and Daniel’s fault, but with coronavirus still raging, the concept feels unbearably blithe.
As a critique of the military industrial complex, “Space Force” also does nothing to improve on “Dr. Strangelove,” “Catch-22,” “M.A.S.H.” or other late-20th century titans of anti-war comedy. It’s got elements of each: the war-room brinksmanship; the absurdity of low-rent authoritarianism; the workaday grit of the Average Joe/Jane caught up in someone else’s power-tripping.
But the personal drama lacks. Naird’s conscience, bouts of private anxiety and love for his daughter grant him a soul, and Carter Burwell’s better-than-it-needs-to-be score only reinforces that. To what end, though?
Naird’s words and actions — warlike, bigoted and anti-science — render him too oblivious to know how oblivious he is. He’s the butt of these jokes, naturally, and his character softens in the second half of the season. But asking viewers to relate to (and, at times, lightly chuckle at) his hostility and confusion feels misguided at a time when nothing else seems to be going in the right direction.