The Showtime astronaut comedy starring Fred Armisen, John C. Reilly and Tim Heidecker -- which they created with Portlandia co-creator Jonathan Krisel -- succeeds because it's unlike other space shows. In fact, it's more like Ted Lasso. "In 2020, space-faring adventures have been all the rage," says Miles Surrey. 'From Away and Space Force on Netflix to the Disney+ adaptation of The Right Stuff and HBO’s Avenue 5, we’ve gotten more than our fair share of space exploration on the small screen. The only reason we haven’t peaked with space-related entertainment is because Tom Cruise hasn’t left the planet’s orbit yet. But with these series, quantity hasn’t exactly meant quality. Away, an earnest and emotional drama about astronauts venturing to Mars and leaving loved ones behind from the executive producer of Friday Night Lights, has already been canceled after one season; Netflix’s try-hard Trump farce Space Force was certainly bad enough to warrant cancellation (that hasn’t been announced yet, but there hasn’t been any news of a Season 2 renewal for the series either); there was no conceivable way for Disney+’s take on The Right Stuff to be anywhere near as good as Philip Kaufman’s Oscar-winning film adaptation; and Avenue 5, while caustically funny in moments, is a noticeable step down from creator Armando Iannucci’s previous HBO comedy, Veep...But in the meantime, there’s still one space-adjacent series ready to fill the void, and it’s far and away the most understated of what’s become a crowded category: Moonbase 8, a Showtime comedy premiering Sunday about aspiring astronauts training at a NASA lunar camp in the Arizona desert. While other astronaut shows have focused on the emotional toll of space exploration or, in the case of Space Force, bureaucratic incompetence on the ground, Moonbase 8 feels weirdly primed for 2020 viewing since the series mines most of its comedy from the characters’ prolonged isolation eating away at their sanity. (This is a bizarre coincidence; the show was first announced in 2018.) The premise will feel uncomfortably familiar for those of us who’ve been quarantining for the better part of the year—the fact that the third episode of the season focuses on a viral outbreak at the base getting some of the astronauts sick, and is literally titled 'Quarantine,' might as well come with an advisory warning.
How did we end up with so many lackluster astronaut shows?: "How, exactly, did we arrive at Peak Astronaut TV?" asks Alan Sepinwall. "Especially since all of these series were developed and produced well before this perilous moment in history, when simply leaving the house can feel as risky as sitting atop a rocket bound for orbit. There’s something scary in the air right now, but how did the people behind this work sense it a year or two ago? More importantly, why are most of these shows so disappointing? Moonbase 8 at least feels timely, if not especially funny, since its subject matter is about the psychological challenge of prolonged isolation from all but a handful of people...The tone is as dry as the crew’s surroundings, in the same vein as the FX cult classic Baskets, whose mastermind, Jonathan Kriesel, co-created this series with its three stars. Baskets elicited both laughs and genuine emotion by treating a bunch of ridiculous ideas.... with utter seriousness. Moonbase 8, on the other hand, doesn’t seem particularly invested in the absurdity of three underqualified, middle-aged men cosplaying as lunar explorers, nor in the poignancy of the gaping distance between their dreams of space travel and the reality of their situation on the ground."
One of the reasons Moonbase 8 works as well as it does is that it’s deliberately not telling stories on a grand scale: "Showtime, where Moonbase 8 debuts Sunday night, describes the series as a workplace comedy, which implies it has something in common with Netflix’s Space Force," says Jen Chaney. "But Moonbase 8 is more absurdist, low-key, and capable of eliciting actual laughter from its audience." Moonbase 8, she says, handles snafus much more effectively than Netflix's Space Force. "One of the reasons Moonbase 8 works as well as it does is that it’s deliberately not telling stories on a grand scale," she says. "Its episodes and its scope are streamlined and focused, and the things its characters confront are purposely not grand at all."
Moonbase 8 swaps hubris for a sense of awe, all while keeping its feet firmly planted on the desert ground: "Though the stakes are low for much of Moonbase’s first season—Cap and crew win small victories, but never seem in danger of endangering the reputation of NASA—the finale is surprisingly climactic, complete with get-psyched music and feverish communication via headset," says Danette Chavez. "It works as a stand-alone series, while leaving room for more episodes. And if any of these “work-space comedies” is capable of breaking from the orbit of the others, it’s Moonbase 8, despite its relatively low-budget production. The series is much more of a piece with the big-heartedness of Ted Lasso than the bleakness of Avenue 5 and Space Force—ever cognizant of its characters’ failings, but never letting them outweigh their capacity to do better."
Moonbase 8's Portlandia-style humor doesn't translate to full-length episodes: "The writing has a flatness about it that, at first, seems like a comic tool intentionally trying to evoke a deadpan vibe — before it simply seems like a lack of imagination," says Matthew Gilbert. "The story setup is in place, the actors have their hapless characters down, they know how to work off one another, and then . . . 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . . nothing. That low-affect humor worked beautifully on Armisen’s Portlandia, but largely because it was delivered up in small batches. Here, in extended form, it drifts into longueurs and the point gets lost. It begins to feel as if the writers needed to add another layer or two of material onto their scripts before filming them — but couldn’t come up with anything."
Moonbase 8 should be funny considering its talent, but it isn't: "It's not exactly ideal that my immediate response to this Showtime comedy's six-episode first season was to step back and ponder what the show's creators, all extremely funny men, thought was funny about their new series. It's very rare that anything gets more amusing when a 'Wait, so what's the actual joke here?' rubric is applied," says Daniel Fienberg. "As conceived by Fred Armisen, Tim Heidecker, John C. Reilly and Jonathan Krisel — like I said, you really can't get a more talented creative team — Moonbase 8 is a celebration of mediocre men rising to mediocre levels in a mediocre moment for America. By that standard, making Moonbase 8 a mediocre comedy could well be a strategic decision and the four creators are nothing if not versed in meta-comedy. So maybe in wishing Moonbase 8 were tighter and smarter and funnier, I'm responding to the show exactly on its intended level — an odd level befitting Showtime's choice of an atypical 11 p.m. time slot."
What's most surprising about Moonbase 8 is how oddly soothing it is: The show's "close quarters setting and the portrayal of a specific kind of monotony also makes it perfect for the current state of affairs," says LaToya Ferguson. "Its humor is also very much specific to all four men’s comedic sensibilities, without being too surreal and without being too broad to appeal to a more mainstream audience. Of all three stars, Armisen’s performance is perhaps the most consistent with his typical type, but that brand of neuroticism is also balanced in Moonbase 8 with Heidecker’s oblivious charm and Reilly’s unthreatening gruffness, especially as the series examines its characters’ relationships with each other and how they’ve interacted confined to this space for all this time and counting."
Moonbase 8 was the result of a group text among its stars and creators: It was John C. Reilly who came up with the idea that they should play astronauts. "Going back to, 'How can we be together? And how can we be funny together?'" says Tim Heidecker. "The idea of being in the same room made a lot of sense to us. What would require us to all be in the same room? That kind of led to these simulations. People pretending—basically cosplaying—to be astronauts. There really was something very fundamentally silly about it." Armisen adds: "There’s also something really funny about whenever you see astronauts doing little experiments and stuff. I secretly never believe it. And I’m always like, 'What are you really doing?' That’s my own ignorance. But I’m just saying. They just always make me laugh. This is important. This plant."
John C. Reilly wanted to star in a fun show: "I like when TV shows are fun," he says. "It's been a while. I watch a lot of murder things, so I actually do appreciate when something is sweet and genuinely funny and not....Well, funny without being, like, sappy or talking down to me or whatever."