Unfortunately, Netflix’s Space Force lives up to its name.
Like the White House announcement the helped inspire it, Greg Daniels and Steve Carell’s Netflix comedy feels hastily slapped together, with the goal of attracting attention first and figuring out the details later.
And while Space Force has indeed succeeded in turning heads — combining a ripped-from-the-headlines premise and a pedigreed creative team with a star-studded cast and an apparently lavish budget will do that — when it comes times to deliver on the goods, the show falls flat on its face.
Its stumbles begin right of the gate. Narratively, the setup works fine: The series opens on Mark Naird (Carell) being promoted to four-star general and then ushered into a Joint Chiefs of Staff meeting, where he’s tasked with founding a new military branch called Space Force. Okay, sure, makes sense, why not.
Tonally, however, these scenes are completely inscrutable. Is Carell playing Mark with an unconvincingly gruff voice to be funny, or does he think he’s actually selling it? Is Mark’s daughter, Erin (Diana Silvers) supposed to sound sarcastic when she congratulates her dad? Are we meant to understand Mark comparing a professional nemesis to “GENDER ROLES…offensive and out of date” as proof he’s progressive, or just that he’s bad at comebacks?
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. 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.
What Space Force seems to think it is changes from episode to episode, or scene to scene.
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.
Through all of it, Space Force never actually gets around to figuring out who Mark is supposed to be. In one episode, he’s so stupid he’s trying to send an astro-dog to fix a satellite; in the next, he’s so eloquent he’s won over even the “angry young Congresswoman” from New York. (Oh, and in case you’re not sure who that character is sending up, her initials are AYC, because that’s the level of subtlety Space Force is operating on. After a few episodes of this, you may long for the comparatively subversive brilliance of an SNL cold open starring Alec Baldwin.)
And yet, Space Force never completely loses the sense of promise it had on paper. In the second half of the season, we even start to see some of it pay off. As the characters around Mark come into clearer focus — particularly Dr. Mallory, whom John Malkovich plays like a softer, more sedate version of his Burn After Reading character — the relationships between them start to form an emotional core that’s lacking in the earlier episodes.
For all its impressive recurring guests (Jane Lynch! Lisa Kudrow! Fred Willard!), the series feels brightest when it’s simply letting its regulars shine. One of the best storylines of the season, for instance, rests entirely on the specific chemistry between ambitious Space Force captain Ali (Tawny Newsome) and sensible scientist Chan (Jimmy O. Yang, light-years away from his bratty Silicon Valley character) —no wacky Elizabeth Holmes caricature or lazy crack about POTUS’ Twitter habit necessary.
In those moments, it’s possible, barely, to make out a version of Space Force that could work. Its purest form seems to be not an acid satire of the military industrial complex or a parody of current events, but a workplace sitcom about slightly odd but ultimately likable people — in other words, a higher-concept version of Daniels’ own The Office or Parks and Recreation. It’s worth noting, then, that both those shows improved over their first couple of seasons, as they settled into a more consistent tone and got to know their performers and characters better.
Maybe Space Force, too, could improve with more time and a bit (okay, a lot) of retooling. Ditch the stuff about Mark’s family, which is already so divorced from the rest of the series that it feels like another show altogether. Scale back the satire, since there’s nothing this show is even trying to do that hasn’t been done better already elsewhere. Slow down the endless parade of flashy guest stars, so the series regulars have some room to grow into their own.
Do all that, and maybe, just maybe, Space Force could evolve into something worth watching by Season 2 (assuming there is a Season 2, since Netflix hasn’t announced one yet). As it exists right now, though, Space Force feels like a ride you can safely sit out.
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Space Force is streaming now on Netflix.
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