June 19, 2020- By Isaac Bettridge
Is Netflix’s new space comedy a giant leap or a failure to launch? Isaac Bettridge tells all.
Most disappointing TV shows are brought down by behind-the-scenes issues, but Space Force is the rare case where the fundamental problem with the series is not only public record but actually flaunted by the creators themselves. In an interview with Vox, show-runner Greg Daniels said that, despite the show’s nominal commitment to satirising the current state of US politics, ‘it’s not our intention to go all-out and poke fun at the military’, and that ‘we (the creative team) have a lot of respect’ for all members of it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this idea, but respect and deference are hardly good starting points for satire (imagine if Monty Python had written Life of Brian from the starting point of ‘respect’ for Christianity), and the weakness of this approach is painfully clear from the first episode onwards.
For the uninitiated, Space Force stars former Office frontman Steve Carrell as General Mark Naird, an orthodox career Air Force man appointed to run the eponymous sixth branch of the US military on the orders of the unseen POTUS (whose identity is never given, but a running gag about him delivering orders via tweet makes it pretty easy to guess). Joining him is a murderer’s row of comic talent, including the imperious John Malkovich as the force’s head scientist, Friends alumnus Lisa Kudrow as Mark’s estranged wife, Parks and Rec fan favourite Ben Schwartz as their insufferable media director and the late, great Fred Willard as Naird’s senile father. Despite Daniels’ comments, the show seems convinced it’s a hard-hitting and relevant satire, with many of its plots ripped straight from the headlines: one episode sees Malkovich and Carrell’s characters subjected to a congressional budget hearing overseen by pretty obvious riffs on the likes of Nancy Pelosi and AOC, whilst another sees the force disrupted by the arrival of a vainglorious entrepreneur clearly modelled after SpaceX CEO and father of the antichrist Elon Musk. The raw ingredients for a pretty sharp and incisive satire are all there, and yet, much like many a military boondoggle, one can’t help but get the feeling that the assembled talent are (metaphorically speaking) fighting the last war.
Its subject matter makes it too inherently political to function as a simple workplace comedy, but its desperation to avoid offending anybody blunts its satirical ambitions.
What I mean by this is that the relatively soft touch with which the show handles its hot-button subjects feels out of step with the mood of the moment. The tone here is one of light-hearted ribbing at the silliness of the military and a humorously demanding and short-tempered president, with almost every episode abandoning any attempt at satire or pointed criticism to give us a stirring bit of Apollo 13-style patriotism that undercuts any attempt to critique wasteful spending or the inherent immorality of militarising space. This would have felt a bit underwhelming at any time in the past few years, which have seen the institutions Space Force pays deference to embroiled in scandal after scandal, but feels even weaker now, when the man who this show reduces to a cheap gag about his impatience is concurrently botching a pandemic response leading to the deaths of over 100,000 Americans and deploying both militarised police and the actual military to crush peaceful protests demanding racial justice.
I don’t mean to imply that I don’t like this show because it doesn’t share my exact political opinions. What I am saying is that the show puts itself in a bind: its subject matter makes it too inherently political to function as a simple workplace comedy, but its desperation to avoid offending anybody blunts its satirical ambitions, leaving it fundamentally formless and lacking in direction. Even putting aside such political concerns, Space Force is just not very funny: too often it feels like a mid-tier Youtube comedy series, full of riffs and pop-culture references that go nowhere, rather than a big-budget Netflix original produced by the people behind some of the funniest and most memorable TV ever made. The assembled talent is given very little to do, with Kudrow in particular feeling entirely wasted in a C-tier Orange is the New Black riff, and more time is given over to melodramatic subplots about Naird’s troubled home life than to any of the more interesting stuff that’s actually about, you know, the Space Force that’s supposedly the focal point of the show.
This is not to imply that the series is all bad however. Malkovich and Carrell have a fun dynamic as the bullish military man vs the cautious scientist, the recurring segments with the Joint Chiefs of Staff (in which they essentially act as Mark’s high school bullies) are entertaining and the production design and cinematography are highly impressive for a TV budget. It’s a common refrain that previous Carrell/Daniels collaboration The Office took until season two to find its feet, and certainly there’s enough promise in season one to make me hopeful that Space Force can refine and improve itself in time for its second season. Certainly, I hope that the show continues, as it would be a real shame if it fell to the fate of so many other Netflix shows and was dropped early before it had a chance to truly find its feet. But on the basis of what I’ve seen so far, this ambitious yet uneven series barely gets off the launchpad.