TV TATTLE

Space Force is a massive misfire for a show involving so many really funny people

  • "It’s painful to say this, but Space Force is a massive misfire, a show shocking in its inability to generate modest chuckles, let alone laughs," says Jen Chaney. "While it’s obviously been inspired by real events, it is less a political satire and more a workplace comedy that happens to be set within a dysfunctional American government determined to get boots back on the moon as quickly as possible. A workplace comedy that reteams Michael Scott with the creator of the American version of The Office? It’s the stuff of streaming-TV dreams, the kind of outcome executives at Netflix had to have been hoping for when they pitched Carell two years ago on doing a show inspired by the Space Force, prompting the actor to bring in his old friend Daniels and develop the series — or rather, overdevelop it." One of the problems is excessive plotting, especially for just 10 half-hour episodes. "An even bigger one is that the vast majority of its jokes simply don’t land," says Chaney. "From episode one, there’s a tonal and pacing issue that is never resolved and suggests the season is still trying to find sure footing well past its halfway mark. Space Force is all effort, as opposed to effortlessness. The degree to which it is trying very hard is apparent in every reaction shot that’s held for too long and every punchline that just lays there, exhausted, in the space between actors. There is way too much dead air in too many scenes." Which is a shame, she adds, because the star-studded cast "is so strong and delivers some really good performances."

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    • Space Force ends up re-creating the mistakes Greg Daniels made with The Office Season 1: "Americans like our sitcoms and our workplaces light and sweet," says Willa Paskin of The Office's first season that was modeled after the British version. "In its second season, the show adapted for American television by Greg Daniels changed to appeal to our sweet tooth. If we spend more time with our co-workers than our kin, The Office would turn the workplace into a makeshift family, instead of the family’s poor substitute. If our bosses have an improper impact on our happiness, than Michael Scott would become an increasingly decent father figure, not a mercurial blowhard. Carell, who had gone all in on Michael’s unctuous blathering, was allowed to play to his strengths, his ability to imbue even the most absurd behavior with sincerity and earnestness. Michael was transformed from a slime ball with slicked-back hair into a lovable buffoon, his hair now parted neatly to the side. He was a fool so indefatigable he would wear you down and win you over, becoming less and less foolish as the show went on. This new, gentler, American version of The Office and Michael Scott became an NBC fixture, a beloved sitcom that has only become more beloved since ending in 2013, particularly on Netflix, where it is always one of the streamer’s most popular shows. When Netflix paid Carell and Daniels to team up again, they must have been hoping for a show like The Office, but not in the sense that it took an entire season to figure out how to use its star. Unfortunately, that’s exactly how Space Force, co-created by Carell and Daniels, is like The Office, with no guarantee it will figure things out."
    • Space Force is a bit of a lot of different things, which leaves it ending up not being about much of anything: "That unearned swagger ends up being one of Space Force’s biggest weaknesses, setting high expectations for a show that (so far) can’t deliver," says Tim Grierson. "For one thing, this sitcom seems to have the budget of a Hollywood blockbuster: The base’s control room is a sleek, pricey affair, and the outer-space sequences boast some surprisingly impressive special effects. From Oscar-nominee Carter Burwell’s soaring score to the show’s sophisticated visual palette — moody lighting and widescreen compositions give the series a cinematic sheen — Space Force announces itself as a big deal, with a bunch of major names in front of and behind the camera. And that’s to say nothing of the presence of Carell and fellow Oscar-nominee (John) Malkovich, who does a superb variation of his beleaguered, exploding Burn After Reading character. (With his excellent elocution and refined manner, Malkovich is great when he loses his shit and just lets fly with a litany of F-bombs.) Off and on over these 10 episodes, you can see the fun, emotionally intricate series that Carell and Daniels were shooting for. As Space Force begins to locate the vulnerability beneath Mark’s atten-hut gruffness, I started warming to the show, even if the sitcom’s exploration of his uneven work-home balance doesn’t feel particularly fresh. When you come down to it, the series mostly feels like the work of people who thought the title (and the Trump connection) were too funny to pass up."
    • When Space Force tries to go bigger or more inspiring with its plot, it buckles under the weight of its own ambition: Space Force is at its best when it focuses on workplace dysfunction. But, says Caroline Framke, "it creeps along as the branch makes vanishingly little progress before suddenly lurching it forward to land on the moon. Its pieces of political satire are both too literal (as when a young liberal congresswoman named 'Anabela Ysidro-Campos,' played by Ginger Gonzaga, gives Space Force’s hell in a hearing that evokes an SNL cold open) and too dated (Mark’s annoying communications manager, played by Ben Schwartz, is 'Tony Scarapiducci,' or more colloquially, 'F*ck Tony' as in 'F*ck Jerry,' I guess?). And like it does with its supposed hero, the show swings wildly between finding the idea of Space Force both ridiculous and inspiring. When it finally does land on an idea, it does so with conviction, but without much of a foundation to support it."
    • Space Force is shockingly bad: "The first episode was bad," says Kevin Fallon. "The second episode was sort of mystifying. But surely the show was going to get good. How could it not get good? Did you read the paragraph above? Misfires happen all the time. Projects with big build-ups often don’t deliver. Lightning doesn’t often strike twice. Yet knowing that doesn’t take away the disappointment that Space Force is largely unfunny, has no sense of perspective or tone, and, outside of a pleasant, somewhat adorable Odd Couple friendship between Carell and Malkovich’s characters, offers little to warrant a recommendation."
    • Space Force's appealing cast, eye-pleasing production design and decent story lines is missing one thing: laughter: "Most of the gags are over-the-top and predictable — such as in one episode when Naird is sequestered for a week in a simulation chamber with other scientists," says G. Allen Johnson. "The characters and situations are so broad, there’s no grounding in reality. To be fair, the series gets better as it goes along. The Office, originally a mid-season replacement for NBC in 2005, didn’t start out so hot either but over nine seasons became a beloved comedy. In Space Force, you can feel Carell, Malkovich and the cast gain confidence and rhythm in the later episodes, finding their characters nicely in a way that, despite the overall up-and-down quality of Season 1, suggests that a season two might be better."
    • Space Force is inexplicably unfunny: The Netflix series is "a black hole for laughter, with stretches of bombs lasting minutes, not just because the gags rarely work, but because there aren't that many jokes in the first place," says Tim Surette. "It feels like the first draft of a comedy before the jokes were put in. In several instances, a character singing — usually Naird — is the joke, and not just a joke, THE joke, including an interminable performance of The Beach Boys' 'Kokomo' in the first episode. It's not just the jokes that are the problem, either. Everything seems hurried, like the show was knocked out in a weekend. Following a one-year time jump in the first episode, a character close to Naird is put on a completely new arc, with no explanation. It's a mind-boggling oversight."
    • Greg Daniels and Steve Carell avoided political ideology to Space Force's detriment: "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," says Daniel Fienberg. "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."
    • Space Force is the best new series of 2020 so far -- it's everything Avenue 5 should've been, and more: "Space-based comedy is having a moment in 2020, what with HBO's Avenue 5 earlier this year and now Space Force on Netflix," says Jennifer Ouellette. "Both boast impressive writing pedigrees: Armando Iannucci (Veep) for the former, and Greg Daniels (Parks and Recreation) for the latter. Both feature a talented ensemble cast, including big-name TV stars (House's Hugh Laurie for Avenue 5, Carell for Space Force), as well as premises ripe for pointedly satirical humor. But while the former never quite found its comic footing, Space Force won me over straight out of the gate with its wickedly sly humor, absurdist set-ups, and unexpected heart. In short, it's everything I wanted Avenue 5 to be, and more."
    • Despite its flaws, Space Force almost never fails as a delivery system for talented funny people doing their thing: "The cast is the comedy equivalent of the Mercury Seven, a crew bearing the unmistakable fingerprints of casting director Allison Jones," says Erik Adams. "Carell and Lisa Kudrow (as Naird’s wife, Maggie) are the big draws, but the premiere tosses out ringer after ringer, some cashing in on scene-stealing turns elsewhere: Ben Schwartz as slick head of communications F. Tony Scarapiducci (the 'F' stands for 'F*ck'—it’s not a compliment), Tawny Newsome as ambitious spaceman Captain Angela Ali, Jimmy O. Yang as second-in-science-command Dr. Chan Kaifang. And those are just the series regulars, an ensemble bolstered by a joint chiefs of staff that includes Patrick Warburton and Jane Lynch; Lake, Michael Hitchcock, and the late Fred Willard (in his final television appearance) following Lynch over from Christopher Guest Land; Veep veterans Dan Bakkedahl and Diedrich Bader; appearances from Kaitlin Olson, Chris Gethard, Aparna Nancherla, Jessica St. Clair, Punam Patel—if they cracked you up on an Earwolf podcast sometime in the past decade, odds are they’re on Space Force."
    • If we’re going to get five hours of Steve Carell onscreen, did it have to be such a step backward?: "Carell has no problem making both sides of that equation believable and engaging — he’s a master of the quick shifts and reversals the part requires," says Mike Hale. "But he’s too good for the material, which never takes off. The loony parts aren’t sharp enough, despite the efforts of Carell and crack performers like Noah Emmerich, Jane Lynch and Diedrich Bader, playing awfully broad stuffed-uniform stereotypes as Naird’s fellow joint chiefs."
    • Space Force feels like a big fat nothing: "After seeing all ten episodes of the first season, I still have no idea. What Space Force seems to think it is changes from episode to episode, or scene to scene," says Angie Han. "Sometimes it's Dr. Strangelove without the bleakness, or Veep without the cruelty, or Silicon Valley without the specificity. Other times it's Parks and Recreation without the earnestness, or The Office without the heart. Which is to say, it mostly feels like a big fat nothing. And the series piles still more nothing on top of that. There's a prison subplot that's never explained, a parenting subplot that literally runs in circles, and a romantic subplot with all the electric charge of a clingy sweater. At various points, it tries halfheartedly to comment on our current political climate, the military industrial complex, and the crisis of modern masculinity, without finding a single new thing to say about any of them."
    • Space Force is a "sort-of-com" -- it's sort of a comedy while sort of looking like a drama: "Space Force is definitely funnier than (Greg Daniels') Upload, but still feels like the comedy isn't funny enough, the drama isn't dramatic enough and the satire isn't sharply satirical enough," says Richard Trenholm. "Each episode has its own sitcom-style set piece acting as a launchpad: Carell loses his marbles in a mock-up lunar habitat; he and Malkovich ferret out a spy; and a simulated space war game pits Space Force against the Air Force. In between, scientists clash with soldiers, a Russian observer works to get his hands on both the general's technology and his daughter, and the Chinese are one step ahead of every giant leap."
    • Space Force's characters shine above its bad premise: "By turns winningly silly, curiously flat, and hauntingly off-key, the series presents a case study in the artistic perils of trying simultaneously to present a fresh satire of the military-industrial complex and a comfort-food buffet of workplace-sitcom commonplaces. It seems stranded between the caustic and the cutesy," says Troy Patterson. "Space Force is perhaps best appreciated as a gallery of cherished stars and character actors who will kindle warmth in the hearts of an indulgent audience."
    • Space Force proves Carell's talents are in deconstructing masculinity: The Netflix comedy fails to deliver, but "there’s one thing that Space Force thankfully does right: it reunites Steve Carell with the kind of part that made him a star," says Meghan O'Keefe. "No longer is Carell floundering in cinematic melodrama or ranting about #MeToo on The Morning Show. As General Mark R. Naird, Carell gets to play another man comically flailing in his alpha male role. It’s good, it’s fun, and it’s comforting to boot." O'Keefe adds: "If you think about the roles that made Steve Carell a star — his Daily Show alter-ego, Andy in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Michael Scott on The Office, and even Brick Tamland in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy — they all riff on the gulf between who a man is and who he believes he’s supposed to be. The comedy often comes from either the character’s lack of self-awareness or frantic tics to hide his own ineptitude. Mark R. Naird is a return to this theme. The whole show starts with Naird believing that he is the perfect Air Force officer, on the cusp of attaining command over the whole structure. When Naird is assigned to Space Force, it’s not just a disappointment but a refutation of the person he thought he was born to be."
    • The problem with Space Force is that it's three different and competing series stuffed into one half hour: "The writers also don't really know whether they want to make fun of Space Force or respect it as a legitimate branch of the military," says Kelly Lawler. "Early episodes present the Force as a farce, as Naird tries to coax a monkey in space to repair a satellite with a drill via video chat. But by the end of the season, he's making impassioned pleas to Congress for funding that move his most stalwart opponents, and standing up to the corrupt secretary of Defense in the name of honor and peace."
    • Space Force is glitzy, frivolous fun: "Space Force is a diversionary delight at best," says Ben Travers. "Missed opportunities abound (whether it’s under-developed characters or first-draft jokes), and anyone expecting a Veep-level satire or Office-like innovation may be disappointed. Season 2, which seems inevitable given the talent involved, could easily go haywire or refine itself into something better. As it stands, Space Force is clearly made with joy. Maybe it won’t fill the Office-sized hole in Netflix subscribers’ hearts when the series leaves the service later this year, and perhaps it could serve a greater purpose than silly fun. But I certainly prefer this version over one that only aims to recreate the past."
    • Too much of Space Force is finding new ways to waste the incredible amount of talent and money on display: "And the scale of the thing makes The Office look like a TikTok video in comparison," says Alan Sepinwall. "There are special effects galore — much of the second episode involves a  CGI chimpstronaut attempting to repair a damaged satellite, while some characters eventually wind up on the moon — and the sprawling Space Force campus (hidden behind a Colorado mountain) is an impressive piece of production design. But as HBO’s own space comedy Avenue 5 showed, seeing all that money onscreen is rarely funny in and of itself. The stylistic touchstone seems to be in the farcical vibe of Dr. Strangelove, but everything just winds up feeling frantic and labored."
    • Steve Carell's eyes are the secret to his success: "There’s something inside of him that, when he turns it on, it scrambles everything inside of you," says Shea Serrano. "That’s why his portrayal of Michael Scott was so poignant, and so brilliant, particularly after the first season. It never mattered how off-putting a thing he did or said was, because all he had to do was start emoting and that was that. He’d start waterfalling emotion out of his eyeballs and suddenly—inexplicably, really—you’d forget that you just watched him assume that 'Mexican' was a derogatory term or harass a coworker or yank away full-ride scholarships from a classroom of children. It’s Steve Carell’s best trick as an actor: He’s able to weaponize those emotional eyeball bursts in a way that completely disarms you. It’s why The 40-Year-Old Virgin worked, and why he was so powerful at the end of The Big Short, and why the train scene in Last Flag Flying was great, and why, despite everything in place that was supposed to push you away from him in Foxcatcher, you still felt like you wanted to knock on his door and walk into his house. It’s also responsible for the times in his new show, Space Force, when things feel like they’re headed in the right direction."
    • How NASA and SpaceX inspired Space Force's production design: “The challenge was that it’s a world that doesn’t exist today, but it’s a real branch of the military,” says production designer Susie Mancini. She also used brutalist architecture and Dr. Strangelove for inspiration.
    • Ben Schwartz on playing a character known as "F*ck Tony": "When I auditioned for this, one of the things we talked about was making sure it’s nothing like Jean-Ralphio. Which is great. In my head, Jean-Ralphio slowly becomes more of like a muppet in a cartoon. (F. Tony) can have moments where he’s excited or whatever, but he comes from a character who’s always trying to get respect from people, and when he’s by himself he’s probably a pretty sad guy. That was so fun to play."
    • Jimmy O. Yang on working with John Malkovich and Steve Carell: "They’re all geniuses. I love everyone in that cast. It’s probably not as loose as The Office, but we definitely improvised quite a bit, especially Steve. Sometimes I’m sitting in that launch room, just watching Steve and John go at it and I’m just like, 'Holy sh*t. I’m watching this master class going down right now.”
    • John Malkovich didn't join Space Force just to play Dr. Adrian Mallory: "I don't normally look at things that way," he says. "'What's my character? What's my line?' I liked the whole thing and I liked all the characters and because it looked like there were going to be eight, 10, 12 very interesting characters. That was good enough for me. I liked that character, but I liked them all."
    • Greg Daniels says Steve Carell's Gen. Mark Naird couldn’t be more different from The Office's Michael Scott: “This guy is super mature," says Daniels. "He’s very accomplished and decorated. He’s very smart. He’s very inflexible. He’s very principled and a super-high achiever who finds himself in a no-win situation. But he’s going to do everything he can to pull it off.”
    • Steve Carell says there were no rules and parameters for creating Space Force: "It just seemed like a new avenue," he says. "It seemed like something that had never been explored before. Obviously, because it hadn't existed. So I think just given that, it could be really anything. Because we’d be developing our show simultaneously as the actual Space Force was being created, there were no parameters, there were no rules. It was a blank sheet of paper for us, and that was intriguing."
    • Carell knew he couldn't avoid The Office comparisons, even though he felt few actually watched the NBC comedy when it was on: “We didn’t want to make the space version of The Office," he said with a chuckle, “which is funny, because as soon as it was announced, that’s what everybody started calling it. But that was a conscious decision. We didn’t want to retrace our steps in any way.” Carell adds of The Office: "It took like 10 years after it went off the air for people to fully embrace it, which never ranked higher than 41st in overall viewers for any of its nine seasons. “I’m telling you, nobody cared about it when it was on the air, It had a core following of several hundred people.”
    • Space Force wanted to target the bureaucracy, incompetence, and machismo of American military might -- not President Trump: "There’s certainly comedy that we’re going for in all directions, but we didn’t want it to be a super angry partisan thing, which I guess was some of the expectation,” says Daniels. “I think it’s a little bit more subtle to do it through the method of a character comedy than to just be hammering away directly at it. We’re trying to present a positive and optimistic vision for how people can come together more to do something audacious that was really a symbol of America at its best when we went to the moon. So I want to make sure that we honored the coolness of that initial idea.”
    • What made the real-life Space Force perfect fodder for a series?: "Part of it is looking at it through the lens of Steve Carell running it, you know?" says Daniels. "That's partly what makes it comic. It's a very ambitious thing to do what the goal is, which is: boots on the moon in 2024. That means that we actually have a base with soldiers living there, and it just feels very difficult in a funny way. And the other aspect is now that it's becoming less about scientists and astronauts, and more military, what's funny is just picturing the skill set of somebody who wasn't expecting to be put in charge of something this technical. (Laughs) And it's kind of cool because it hasn't been defined what it is. The interesting thing is that the more research we did — and we went to SpaceX a bunch of times and we did a lot of research about it — I think that it isn't crazy for the United States to want to have a Space Force."

    TOPICS: Space Force, Netflix, Ben Schwartz, Greg Daniels, Jimmy O. Yang, John Malkovich, Steve Carell, Susie Mancini, Production Design, Trump Presidency




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