Steve Carell’s New Netflix Series ‘Space Force’ Is Shockingly Bad
It’s unclear what went wrong with “Space Force,” which reunites Carell with the creator of “The Office.” Suffice it to say, it’s a confusing misfire, wasting serious potential.
There’s a very annoying thing in the age of streaming. It’s the “just wait until episode five... it gets real good” thing. The “I know there are close to 1,000 TV series to watch but spend several hours not enjoying yourself so you can appreciate when this arbitrary show finds its way” thing. The very annoying thing that—groan of all groans—can be true if you have the patience and/or the masochism to investigate.
And so when it came to Space Force, I watched through episode five. And then I watched episode six. And episode seven. And episode eight. The show did not get good.
Maybe it was disbelief that kept me hitting “play next,” or at the very least confusion. If not, perhaps it was misguided optimism?
You see, Space Force, which launches on Netflix Friday, is Steve Carell’s big return to TV comedy, his first starring role in one since The Office. More, the series reteams Carell with Greg Daniels, who developed the American version of The Office for NBC. There’s another “more” to that sell, too, which is the cast assembled. John Malkovich, Lisa Kudrow, Ben Schwartz, Jane Lynch, Jessica St. Clair, Kaitlin Olson, and the late Fred Willard all have supporting or guest roles.
The first episode was bad. The second episode was sort of mystifying. But surely the show was going to get good. How could it not get good? Did you read the paragraph above?
Misfires happen all the time. Projects with big build-ups often don’t deliver. Lightning doesn’t often strike twice. Yet knowing that doesn’t take away the disappointment that Space Force is largely unfunny, has no sense of perspective or tone, and, outside of a pleasant, somewhat adorable Odd Couple friendship between Carell and Malkovich’s characters, offers little to warrant a recommendation. Schwartz and St. Clair deliver good performances, too, so there’s that? I guess?
As the story goes, Carell and Daniels pitched Netflix with two words: “Space force.” (I would venture that it was more like, “‘Space force,’ and by the way we’re the guys who made The Office, so…”
They were inspired by Donald Trump’s jarring declaration that he wanted to create a sixth branch of the armed services, the space force. The idea was met with a combination of snickers, skepticism, exhaustion, and sure, inspired hoo-rah spirit, too, and Trump still charged on undeterred; that is Daniels and Carell’s Space Force starting point.
In this fictional United States, a buffoonish president—Trump is not named, but references to the off-screen character paint the picture you’re inclined to imagine anyway—demands the formation of a space force, funnels ungodly amounts of money into it, shields himself from any criticism of the idea, and places Carell’s General Mark Naird in charge.
Naird is disappointed, as he had his eyes set on heading the air force, but he’s been given a job and he’s going to make sure he’s good at it. His army-trained machismo and hubris, however, routinely get in the way, to the frustration of his civilian science adviser Dr. Adrian Mallory (Malkovich), whose insistence that the space mission has tangible scientific benefit is a thorn in Naird’s “let’s just blast off already” side.
It’s of course tempting to watch Space Force with the expectation that it will skewer Trump, an imbecilic administration, and a bureaucratic clown show—or if you’re being generous, given the characterization of Malkovich’s Adrian as a needling nuisance, that it is some sort of both-sides satire of our extremist political gridlock.
The first scene explains the president’s desire to put “boots on the moon by 2024” to a chorus of laughs from heads of the armed services. Their giggles at the lunacy of it only grow louder when it is revealed that the text from the president actually reads “boobs on the moon.” So...Trump...right? Sort of. I think.
There are a handful of moments that directly interact with the current political climate. That one of those is the very first scene of the show sets the expectation that Space Force will offer at least some kind of political commentary. That those moments are so sporadic, yet still so concentrated and blunt when they come along, contribute to the series’ fatal flaw. There is an absence of a point of view; it’s never made clear what the show set out to do, say, or even be.
When Naird has to justify the mammoth space force budget to a congressional committee, we’re introduced to buzzkill Congresswoman Petosi—yes, you read that right. Her demands that spending actually benefit the American people and not merely presidential ego are characterized as anti-patriotic fun-ruining.
When Naird gets tongue-tied during her questioning, she chomps at the bit to cede the floor to her fiery Latina colleague from New York. “If you’re at a loss for words, I’ll yield to our youngest member, who rarely is,” Petosi says.
OK. So there’s a Trump character. There is quite obviously a Nancy Pelosi and an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. At one point during the hearing, women in Handmaid’s Tale outfits storm in and start protesting, but they’re laughed at for mixing up which day the Supreme Court confirmation hearing is. Listen, any political leaning is fair game for skewering. But the way it’s done here, the few times it is done, it’s in such bad faith—on both sides—that it’s unclear what the point was. When the AOC character dresses Naird down for wasting $10,000 on a space force orange while her constituents can’t get welfare funding, Naird gives a stirring speech set to sappy inspirational music, reminiscent of Bill Pullman’s famous speech from Independence Day. He talks about the sacrifice that men of the military make in order to secure the occasional societal advancement. He “wins” the argument. And I think we’re meant to be happy about that?
That we’re not sure is the big issue.
Throughout the series, Space Force presents Naird as delusional and in over his head, as a hard-working serviceman to be admired; as a well-meaning, but insecure leader with impostor syndrome (in the vein of Michael Scott); as an example of toxic masculinity and bureaucratic idiocy; as the last remnant of what was once the Great American Man; as a joke; as a hero; or some sort of combination of all of it.
Watching, you don’t know if you want the space force to succeed, or if you’re supposed to recall the facts that the episodes present—that this is a colossal, asinine waste of money—and root for Naird’s failure.
The workplace comedy aspect is one part of it. You could look at this as Veep with a lighter touch, taking on the space force instead of the White House. Naird navigating his role as a father, a husband, and as a man is another, twin element of the series. His marriage is complicated, his teenage daughter is a handful, and, trapped at Space Force HQ away from his air force buddies, he’s forced to reconsider what he values in male friendship.
In other words, he’s a boomer trying to handle his job and his family in a world that has changed its expectations of men. Everyone is telling him he can’t do things because that’s not how they’re done anymore, but he does them his way anyway and usually he wins. The season plays as a series of “OK, Boomer…” setups, except the boomer gets his way.
So what is Space Force about? Is it about what nationalism means today? Is it about an incompetent administration? Is it about finding a way to overcome the tension between science and government for the greater good—or, at least, for the greater friendship of two hard-working dudes? I really, truly do not know.
At times, the show can be very sweet. There is Dr. Strangelove absurdity or Airplane!-style deadpan humor that elicits a solid chuckle. But there’s no continuity of tone, which veers so wildly between earnest and sarcastic that, aside of it being nice to watch John Malkovich and Steve Carell interact, you’re not sure how to feel about anything.
The last time Carell and Daniels got together, it was for a comedy that, seven years after it stopped airing, is perhaps more influential now than ever.
The formula, the tone, the kinds of characters they minted together speaks to a current moment as much as it was celebrated during its original run. The series was so popular on Netflix, which is to say that it was the most watched television show in the world, that NBCUniversal plopped down a $500 million check to poach it for its own streaming service. Its footprint is everywhere, whether it’s in shows created by or starring Office alums, or just the influence of the vibe that the show honed and the mockumentary style it popularized.
As Daniels explained to Variety last week, he met with Netflix’s research team during the Space Force development process to get a sense of what viewers like. The joke of it all is, duh, he already knows. It’s workplace comedy, quirky characters, and romantic arcs. It’s The Office.
But the sort of baffling thing about Space Force is that it doesn’t play like a show by the guys who created The Office, but a show by a bunch of different guys trying to produce their version of The Office. Everything is inelegant. The dynamics don’t gel together. And that’s not even to say that Space Force would have only worked if it was an Office clone. But it is to say that, because it really doesn’t have an identity of any sort, it begs the comparisons even more intensely.
So Office fans will surely be disappointed. I know I was.