When I heard Steve Carell and Greg Daniels had teamed up on a space parody for Netflix, my first reaction was visceral — I cringed. So many great comic minds have crashed spectacularly trying to explore the final frontier of satire. Mel Brooks in Spaceballs. Seth Macfarlane in The Orville. Armando Iannucci and Hugh Laurie in Avenue 5.
Now comes Space Force, co-created by the creator of three beloved comedies — The Office, Parks & Rec, and King of the Hill — teaming up with his all-time MVP Carell, himself an accomplished news parody guy from his years on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. So far so good. But, and it’s a big but, the show was ordered by Netflix, a company that likes to pay too much for brand-name talent and give them carte blanche to, if they like, impale their own careers. (Chelsea Handler and Kenya Barris come to mind.) So that was a red flag.
Another red flag is the fact that Space Force is a parody of an actual government agency called Space Force that was created under this president, and politics seems to poison everything these days. (In both real life and the show, Space Force is the sixth branch of the military, a bureaucratic reshuffle branded as a bold initiative, not unlike the creation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security after 9/11.)
So I went into Space Force with low expectations, because sometimes low expectations pay off. And they did here, sort of. The good news is that this is not the worst space parody ever. In fact, it rockets off the pad with a fall-down-funny pilot episode. From there, though, it hits turbulence. Space Force is not lacking for ideas. It wants to be a romantic comedy at times, at other times a workplace comedy, and it tosses off topical jokes occasionally, though no one will confuse this show with Veep.
Still, it’s possible — just possible — that this show, which was cooked up after the announcement of the real Space Force, may have been rushed into production before all those ideas were sorted into a comedy with flow. Space Force has a lot of laughs, but it seriously lacks flow.
Carell stars as four-star general Mark Naird, the newly appointed head of Space Force, with Lisa Kudrow as his wife, Jane Lynch and Noah Emmerich as catty Joint Chiefs, and John Malkovich as a zany scientist. Having reached the pinnacle of his career, Naird finds himself in the middle of nowhere at a NORAD-like compound, humiliatingly reduced to petty personnel issues and a family situation that would break a lesser man. He’s got a tight budget and a ridiculously short timeline for the hugely ambitious goal of putting America back on the moon.
I highly recommend watching the first episode, in part so I don’t have to spoil the two brilliant reveals that are in it. You’ll see Space Force quickly morph from a fast-paced D.C. sitcom with a lot of topical jokes to a Greg Daniels-ish workplace comedy in which Carell basically revives his self-important short-man’s-complex role from The Office, only in militarily correct uniform. Again, this is Netflix. In an interview, Daniels said that as he and Carell were developing the show, a marketer at Netflix quoted internal research suggesting that they should make a show just like The Office.
The best thing about Space Force is Carell and Kudrow, who are more than capable of throwing hilarious banter at each other, but also — in the surprisingly touching eighth episode — of breaking each other’s hearts as well. When Mrs. Naird demands an open marriage, her straitlaced husband replies, “Open to what?” To which his wife begins quoting the Air Force handbook’s admonition to being open to change. It’s a brilliant scene, funny and poignant and, despite the absurdity of their situation at that moment, quite believable.
Unfortunately, because of the absurdity of their situation, Carell and Kudrow get precious little screen time together. That leaves this show at the mercy of John Malkovich, who is determined to give us one of those peculiar Malkovichian characters. That might work in a two-hour movie, but not in a claustrophobic workplace comedy, using Steve Carell as his straight man. Or is Malkovich supposed to be Carell’s straight man? The fact that I have to ask is troubling. The side players — especially Tawny Newsome as an ambitious pilot at the Space Force compound — have potential that could be realized if this show gets another 10-episode order. (Alas, we will not see Gen. Naird’s father, played by Fred Willard, again.)
I’m wondering, though, if space might not be our third rail of comedy. Sixty years after Alan Shepard and JFK’s moon speech, space still has a powerful grip on our national psyche. It capsulizes our civic ideals in a gallant, science-driven launch into the great beyond. We like our space entertainment earnest, whether as a noble Western (The Mandalorian), or an overwrought commentary on power (Battlestar Galactica), or a counter-factual fantasy (For All Mankind).
Even if space is only the backdrop for what is essentially a comedy about small-scale office wars — a specialty of the show’s creators — the decision to poke fun at a real military agency that came to be through the current occupant of the White House is one that I’m guessing everyone involved with Space Force now regrets, at least a little.
Also, there’s this: Executives change at TV networks, but also in government. What if the next occupant of the White House decides to cancel Space Force?
The entire ten-episode first season of Space Force is now streaming on Netflix.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.