Arriving on Netflix, Space Force is co-created by its star Steve Carell, and Greg Daniels. The latter has a CV that includes The Office, Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, Parks and Recreation, and King of the Hill. With a co-starring role for John Malkovich, and appearances from the likes of Lisa Kudrow, Jane Lynch, Fred Willard (in his final role), and Noah Emmerich, the show arrives with a pedigree that has earned it the backing of a seemingly sizable budget, as both the cast hired, and the standard of the visual effects employed speak to a heavy financial outlay.
Carell plays Mark Naird, a man promoted to the rank of four-star General at the start of the series, and given the new Space Force branch of the armed forces to command. To do this, he will need to move with his wife Maggie (Kudrow) and daughter Erin (Diana Silvers) to Colorado, where he will seek to meet the President’s demand to see ‘boots on the moon by 2024’. After this prologue, we pick up one year later: Maggie is in prison (for reasons we never fully understand, although it is clearly a serious offence, as we learn later in the series that her sentence is 40-60 years in duration), and Mark is having to balance the demands of the embryonic branch of the military with those of being a now single parent.
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So far, promising enough for a human comedy-drama with a little satire about the pointlessness of militarising space. The problem very quickly manifests, however, that Space Force has no idea whatsoever what it wants to be. When given the assignment, Mark is told that the president will be tweeting about it in the next five minutes, and the ‘boots on the moon’ demand is tweeted by him with the typo ‘boobs on the moon’. As satire it is lazy; as comedy it isn’t particularly funny.
The Naird character is never particularly nailed for tone. The viewer will be hard pressed to identify whether he is meant to be competent or a buffoon. In the same way Peter Sellers made Inspector Clouseau both a buffoon, but one with occasional surprising insight or moments of genius, the show appears to be going for something similar here. It isn’t quite knockabout enough in tone for this to work. In fact, mentioning Sellers, there is something of Dr Strangelove in the tone, but without anything like the same commitment.
Having fallen between satire and farce, it introduces an element of broad parody, but lazily disguising current US politicians and public servants behind thin veneers: Mark’s ‘social media advisor’ is a shallow man named Tony Scarapiducci – a clear – and deeply uninventive – play on Anthony Scaramuchi, the short-lived White House communications director for Donald Trump. At one point, Naird has to attend a committee to argue the Space Force budget with a lady named Pitosi (clearly Nancy Pelosi), along with an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez substitute. It is comedy of the standard of the 90s and 2000s Date Movie-type films, as it lazily acknowledges the existence of something, and considers that job done on effective parody.
The key for any comedy though, it whether it is funny. There was a single smile to be had in the five-hour running time of the show. When Naird is asked, in committee, “why do you exist?” (clearly in reference to the Space Force itself) the obvious joke is something about his own conception. The punchline is evident from a mile away, but it raised a smile – and that was it for the better part of a day’s viewing.
Every now and then the show will attempt something deeper: relationship issues with his wife and daughter; musings on the nature of promises and commitment; the historic nature of what this branch of the military is attempting. In every case it comes out of nowhere and is juxtaposed with any manner of ill-thought through jokes, ranging from product placement to the expendability of soldiers in the eye of budget holders. Virtually the whole second half of an episode is given over to trying to get a chimp in space to fix a satellite via sign language instructions. It isn’t funny, it doesn’t work in-universe as anything a sometimes competent General would order, and it commits to a whole scenario that should have been binned at the brainstorming/story-breaking stage.
The show hires the now late-Fred Willard, when his health was too far gone for this to be any other than a deeply uncomfortable appearance. It takes Lisa Kudrow, and gives her perhaps 20 minutes across the whole season. With the Erin character being just as underused, it begs the question why Naird even has a family in this story.
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The whipping through different tones, and the lack of clear and obvious points where this is meant to be amusing, led to the thought that a laugh track would have been helpful, if only as some indicator of what the writers and producers thought was funny in this show.
For all the nice effects and star power on the screen, all that has been achieved is to ensure that Space Force is an expensive show, one that will need to do well to justify any further investment. Malkovich is enjoyable as Naird’s chief science officer, but nothing else works. Running jokes including his secretary (a General in his own right) not telling him when someone is waiting for him in his office are not funny, and they go nowhere. By the final three or four episodes it was becoming a serious slog, as there had been no consistent character work to make us commit to the characters, no laughs, and a tone so jarring that it was almost impossible to know if we’re meant to be laughing, empathising, or crying.
At Set The Tape we binge watch bad TV so that you don’t have to. Avoid.