"Space Force" is fun. It's even funny in places. But it also feels as sterile as the vacuum of space — as if the bulk of the humor was stretched to within an inch of its life in the writers' room.
- John Malkovich still has his comedic chops.
- Jerry O. Yang's deadpan is dead on.
- Fred Willard, may he rest in peace.
- Pretty much everything else.
It isn't that Space Force doesn't bring the funny. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments in the new Netflix comedy. It's worth watching if for no other reason than John Malkovich. Where Space Force ultimately crashes and burns over 10 episodes is that, much like its central character, it's just trying too damn hard.
And perhaps, in a year like 2020, we just don't need art so closely imitating the absurdity that is real life.
Let's back up a tad, though. Space Force is the brainchild of Greg Daniels and Steve Carell. Those are the two very funny people who brought us the U.S. version of The Office, of course. And the show is loosely based on real life in that the 45th President of the United States ordered a new branch of the military — Space Force — under the umbrella of the U.S. Air Force.
"Space Force" is a silly name. (Perhaps "Air Force" once was thought of in the same manner — though it certainly rolls off the tongue easier than U.S. Army Air Corps.) And it was ordered by a person so serious it's silly. There was no way the likes of Daniels and Carell couldn't make a funny show out of it, right?
The problem may well have been one of expectations.
Oh, god, there's going to be a second season.
That was my takeaway upon finishing the 300-or-so minutes of Space Force. Two cliffhangers that don't actually make me care about the characters any more than I did 150-or-so minutes into the series. That goes for the people on the ground as well as (most) of the people who now have boots on the moon.
The gist of Space Force the show is based on Space Force the service branch in the loosest possible ways. The president says to do something, and everyone pretends that it's a ridiculous request that has to be done anyway, so we might as well throw all the money in the world at it. The goal? Boots on the moon. (Boots on the moon!)
The hapless leader in charge is Michael Scott Pence, played by Mark Naird, played by Steve Carell. The four-star general didn't want this assignment. He made fun of it. And then was shipped out to Colorado to get it done. He's an amalgamation of Carell's Michael Scott from The Office and Mike Pence from The White House. He's funny for exactly 37 seconds before you realize you're to have to endure that the four-star Brick Tamland the entire series.
Naird's teenage daughter Erin (Diana Silvers, who was in the excellent Booksmart) is stuck in Colorado with him. His wife, Maggie (Lisa Kudrow) is in prison out there, too, serving 40 years for some sort of crime. We don't know what, and by the time she and her guard/lover break out to rescue young Erin, I absolutely don't care what it was she did. Chances are it's not going to be that funny anyway.
There's testing and launching and experimenting going on, with the goal of eventually getting U.S. boots on the moon. (Boots on the moon!) One problem, though: It turns out China beat us to it. They're on the moon already. They're running over the U.S. flag with a rover, and then backing up over it, too, just to make sure we got the point.
So we've got to rush a crew to the moon just as quickly as we can, which involves taking a few astronauts and a couple of blue-collar (and quite probably mentally handicapped) workers from the base and getting them up there, quite literally, tomorrow. And that's just absurd, even by this show's standards. There's a brief flirtation here with exploratory morality and military ethics that feels completely out of place, too, since it's ultimately ignored, leaving two sets of boots on the moon (boots on the moon!) seemingly stranded. (I say "seemingly" because I'm willing to bet we're going to find out in Season 2 that some other nation also has boots on the moon (boots on the moon!) and will end up saving the Americans and the Chinese.
On paper, Space Force has everything you need for a fun watch. It's got an absurd premise. It has all sorts of actors who excel at absurdity. Consider:
- Steve Carell
- John Malkovich
- Ben Schwartz
- Jimmy O. Yang
- Don Lake
- Dan Bakkedahl (basically reprising his role from Veep )
- Lisa Kudrow
- Jessica St. Clair
- Roy Wood Jr.
- Noah Emmerich
- Diedrich Bader
- Fred Willard
- Jane Lynch
- Patrick Warburthon
That's a lot of star power (though the final four in the list here really are cameos in just a handful of scenes). And Space Force actually needs credit for how well Tawny Newsome's Capt. Angela Ali stood out — even if her character is as absurd as all the others. And Malkovich — even though he's largely playing a more subdued and nerdy version of Marvin Boggs from RED — is what kept me from aborting Space Force altogether.
It's not that the jokes are bad. They're there, and they're funny. But they never added up to a cohesive series. And for the most part I wasn't invested in the story at all, and the characters even less. And that could be for this one very reason reason:
Space Force (the force) sounds silly, and it was ordered by a silly man. But what's going on up there is very much real, and very much important. Read Jim Sciutto's "The Shadow War: Inside Russia's and China's Secret Operations to Defeat America" and you''ll quickly understand why.
That doesn't mean we shouldn't poke fun at the armed forces from time to time, even as we recognize the importance of the military. But Space Force ain't M*A*S*H*. It's not Stripes. It's not Hogan's Heroes. It's not even Pauly Shore and Andy Dick in In the Army Now. And it's most definitely not The Office.
It's mostly a failure to launch, in moon-colored camo.
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