Lame ‘Space Force’ explodes on the launch pad
Forget The Office. The closest comparison to Space Force is a Saturday Night Live cold open. Subjects that are so outlandish they’re beyond parody and tired, outdated jokes full of wasted opportunity have populated that late-night show’s first few minutes for years now. They built Space Force from the same mold.
The new Netflix farce from Office showrunner Greg Daniels is essentially a workplace comedy about the people who make up Space Force, the very real branch of the military that President Trump announced in 2018. Co-creator Steve Carrell plays Gen. Mark Naird, who learns upon promotion to an Air Force four-star that he will not be leading the Air Force, but will instead be heading up the newly-created Space Force in an effort to colonize and study the moon. A team of scientists, led by Dr. Adrian Mallory (John Malkovich) and Dr. Chan (Jimmy O. Yang), assist him. The science/military tension between Naird and Mallory is the heart of the show. Malkovich is Space Force’s greatest comedic asset, turning lackluster jokes into laugh-out-loud moments purely on vocal inflection alone.
A supporting cast of Space Force soldiers rounds out the group, but they are largely sidelined in favor of Carrell and Malkovich.
Naird is also fighting a battle at home. The promotion to Space Force means he has to uproot his family from Washington, D.C. to Colorado, causing his teenage daughter Erin (Diana Silvers) to resent him and driving his wife Maggie (an underused Lisa Kudrow) to commit some sort of crime that lands her in prison for 40 years. The show never mentions the crime, and then does a “one year later” jump cut within its first five minutes to indicate that Maggie is in prison. Daniels says that’s supposed to be the whole joke. Oh, and Naird’s aging father (The late, great Fred Willard, RIP) keeps running away from home, prompting Naird to use military satellites to find him at all hours of the night.
Space Force doesn’t name, show, or sound-bite Trump at all, but Trump’s shadow hangs over the whole show. It mentions Tweets, of course: “The president tweeted he wants boots on the moon by 2024. Well, actually, he said ‘boobs,’ but we believe that was a typo.” “Expect a firestorm on Twitter after what you just did.” The jokes about the POTUS are so tired, and have about as much bite as a Jimmy Fallon monologue.
Daniels and Carrell have said they didn’t intend the show to be a skewering of Trump, who the public meet with ridicule when he announced the real Space Force.
Uh-huh. Sure. Nobody who’s seen this show will buy that, with sets that evoke memories of Dr. Strangelove and episodes about POTUS tweets and possible Russian spies and Chinese interference with American moon rovers. That’s not to mention the Chuck Shumer, Nancy Pelosi, Anthony Scaramucci and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stand-ins named Chuck Schugler, Nancy Pitosi, F. Tony Scarapiducci and Anabela Ysidro-Campos. Comedy!
Carrell plays Naird like a cross between a grizzled veteran and Prison Mike, with a gruff voice that never seems like it’s taking itself seriously. He’s a buffoon who reached the top by failing upwards, and much like in The Office, his success depends on his team succeeding despite (and sometimes because of) his ineptitude. The entire second episode is about Naird trying to convince a chimpstronaut (exactly what it sounds like) to fix a satellite that got knocked out of orbit.
Space Force portrays the rest of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (played by Diedrich Bader, Jane Lynch, Patrick Warburton, Noah Emmerich and Larry Joe Campbell) in the same manner. Each scene with them is clearly trying to evoke the “you can’t fight in here, this is the war room” scene from Strangelove, but thinks the height of comedy is dick and fart jokes.
And that’s really the whole issue with this show. The entire concept of a Space Force is wild enough on its own, and so well-known in our current media landscape, that a show about it wouldn’t need to hit viewers over the head with its novelty. Space Force is like if Veep or Death of Stalin chose the easy joke over hard commentary every time.
The easy way out is to attempt to lampoon the concept of America living on the moon. A truly novel concept would be to make an idealist, honest-to-goodness show that takes this mission seriously, and examine what might really happen if we put “boots on the moon” instead of making fun of it. The best parts of Space Force– when Naird lobbies for more funding from the House Committee, or when he’s talking to his space soldiers about the enormity of their mission–take that path.
But too often, Space Force is content to take up space with jokes that lack gravity.