After weeks of enticing teasers/trailers and a behind-the-scenes featurette, Steve Carell’s comedy series Space Force finally premiered this past weekend on Netflix. Let’s take a look at how the first 10-episode season fared and if it’s worth five hours of your precious binge-watching time.
Also, since we’ll be looking at the entire season as a whole, there will be some spoilers.
The trailers for Space Force made it fairly obvious that the series would revolve around the skepticism and ridicule that the new (and very real) branch of the United States Armed Forces would face. What it didn’t show, however, is how valiantly General Mark Naird (Carell) would fight to make the best of his unwanted assignment.
Despite pushback from every possible direction (including his own staff), Naird refuses to give anything but his absolute best effort. Driven by both a sense of duty and personal pride, he looks at Space Force as an opportunity to do something new and truly great, both for his career and his country. Unfortunately, Naird’s quest is impeded by multiple roadblocks both practical and bureaucratic.
The move from Washington D.C. to a secret base in rural Colorado also causes his family to come apart at the seams. His wife Maggie (Lisa Kudrow) has been given a 40-year jail sentence (for a crime the audience is never privy to) and his daughter Erin (Diana Silvers) has begun to lash out and rebel in ways he is completely unprepared to handle as a single parent.
As you might imagine, this creates plenty of opportunities for General Naird to find himself in comedically frustrating situations. Thankfully, Space Force also cultivates its first season narrative in a way that humanizes the characters beyond being props for Carell’s comedy. It also manages to transform Naird’s quest in such a way that you’ll likely find yourself rooting for Space Force to succeed, as well.
One look at the Space Force cast tells you how great the characters in this series are going to be.
Of course Carell is brilliant, but John Malkovich’s role as Dr. Adrian Mallory (Naird’s chief scientist) is arguably the best thing about the show. In addition to his incredible comedic chops, Malkovich infuses Dr. Mallory with just the right mix of arrogance and pathos to make him the perfect frenemy foil to General Naird. The times when these two go head-to-head or join forces are by far the series’ best moments. One moment in particular goes from gut-splitting hilarity to heartbreak thanks to Malkovich’s fantastic performance.
If we’re being honest, though, most of us knew (or at least expected) John Malkovich’s comedic skills to be on par with his dramatic work.
The biggest revelation for me was Jimmy O. Yang as Dr. Chan Kaifang, Mallory’s #2 scientist. I’d never seen him in anything before this, but Yang totally holds his owns with Carell, Malkovich, and the rest of the veteran cast, generating plenty of laughs along with a great character. Whenever Kaifang shows up on screen, you can pretty much guarantee that something funny is going to happen via biting sarcasm and/or soul crushing self deprecation.
Kaifang’s best moments are when he is paired with Tawny Newsome’s Angela Ali, a brilliant and highly skilled pilot who also suffers from crippling self-doubt and anxiety. She also has some incredibly sweet moments (especially with Naird’s daughter) that helps give Space Force a large portion of its heart.
I was honestly dreading Ben Schwartz’s role as slimy social media manager F. Tony Scarapiducci. I know it’s by design, but I never seem to like any of the characters that Schwartz plays. This time, however, I found myself almost completely won over. Yes, F. Tony is still all types of annoying, but Schwartz plays the part with such a genuine and frantic desire to succeed that it becomes almost impossible not to root for him.
He also fills the critical role of giving Dr. Mallory and General Naird a shared object of rage and disdain. In fact, every character F. Tony appears with becomes infinitely more funny and likable, including Naird’s sad sack (and barely tolerable) assistant, Brad Gregory (Don Lake).
As far as guest stars and recurring roles are concerned, Space Force is chalk full of them. It’s hard to think of a better comedic Joint Chiefs of Staff than the one Mark Naird has to contend with to defend (and justify) his service branch. Also, if you are a military veteran or have family/friends who served, then you’ll likely get a kick out of the complete disrespect and malice directed by the Army, Marines, Navy, and Air Force toward the Commandant of the Coast Guard (Larry Joe Campbell).
While I do wish we’d gotten to see more of this group (especially Jane Lynch as the Navy Commandant), they definitely made the most of their time on screen.
Thankfully, the one member of the Joint Chiefs that we do see more of is superb. Noah Emmerich gives Air Force commander Kick Grabaston a great mix of simmering menace and meathead buffoonery, creating a genuine threat/villain for Naird who is also extremely funny in his own right.
For those who might be wondering, President Donald Trump is never named during the series, although the show’s fictional president is portrayed as impulsive and prone to sending out rash policy decisions via Twitter…so yeah, it’s definitely Trump.
The show does gives us some VERY thinly veiled caricatures of present day politicians, though. While most are brief, broad, and forgettable, Ginger Gonzaga’s portrayal of New York Representative Anabela Ysidro-Campos (a crystal clear parody of New York Representative Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) is so good that it might be one of the few things in today’s world that both conservatives and liberals can share a good-natured laugh over.
Fun side note: Gonzaga actually reached out to AOC on Twitter to see if she’d watched the series and what the congresswoman thought of her impression of her. No response yet, but I have a feeling Rep. Ocasio-Cortez would have a good sense of humor about it–especially the red suit power suit.
What Doesn’t Work
Make no mistake–Space Force is a comedy through-and-though. That being said, the series’ first season does have an overarching narrative supported by strong individual character arcs. Unfortunately, what should have been a well-executed and greatly appreciated attempt to elevate Space Force into the realm of beloved heartfelt comedies like The Office was often mishandled to the detriment of an otherwise excellent show.
Perhaps the most striking example of this is General Naird’s daughter Erin, although that’s through no fault of actress Diana Silvers. The show’s scripts would often portray the two of them having a major breakthrough/understanding only to completely reset or even revert to their strained relationship by the next episode. This might have been easier to overlook in a series that aired weekly, but for a show that most are going to watch in a few sittings, it was jarring.
It’s also hard to watch Erin be so cruel to Duncan (Spencer House), a dimwitted yet kind security guard who’s trying his best to impress her. Moments between them that are supposed to be funny end up feeling uncomfortable while also making you like Erin a lot less.
Staying within the Naird family, the narrative about what happens to Mark and Maggie after her arrest can’t seem to decide if it wants to be played for laughs or tears. While it’s certainly possible to turn personal tragedy into comedy, it doesn’t happen without laying some groundwork and following a logical progression. Space Force, on the other hand, moves this part of its plot forward via unexpected character behaviors and jarring shifts in tone. The end result is much less fun than it is painful to watch.
The Naird family drama isn’t the only place where the characterization is inconsistent, either. Mark Naird himself is portrayed as a sharp, smart, and resourceful man one minute and a bumbling idiot the next. While it’s understandable that someone like him might struggle with social cues, Naird’s bouts of cluelessness don’t line up at all with what we learn about his history. It also makes his many triumphant moments difficult to accept.
On the flip side of the coin, Naird’s assistant Brad Gregory and Secretary of Defense John Blandsmith (Dan Bakkedahl) are portrayed in such an exaggerated manner that they make Dwight Schrute from The Office look a paradigm of subtlety. There’s also a Russian spy named Yuri (Alex Sparrow) who is ridiculously transparent about his work and allegiance–so much so that it makes the premise of one episode (where Naird and Mallory are tasked with finding a mole within their ranks) beyond absurd.
This would all be fine if Space Force was going for a full-on slapstick comedy. Instead, it ends up clashing significantly with much of the show’s tone and character work. This causes significant portions of the series to feel like more of an uneven sketch comedy show than an episodic story.
The only episode of Space Force I didn’t care was the season finale. I’m fine with a good cliffhanger, but it would have been nice to get a bit more resolution to some of the major character arcs playing out before cutting to the credits.
Other than that, however, I greatly enjoyed the first season of the series and am actively hoping for a second. Even with the aforementioned missteps, Space Force still provides plenty of good laughs, fun storylines, and great characters, all of which are set up to grow and improve significantly.
Also, even though this is a comedy, I find myself strangely invested in the United States’ mission to build a sustainable lunar habitat on the moon’s surface and protect it from foreign invaders. Whether that’s due to the show’s solid writing, it’s incredible cast, or my ever increasing desire for new entertaining content during this quarantine, you can definitely count me as a supporter of our military presence expanding to outer space (on television).