Carell’s ‘Space Force’ has a troubled launch

Hank Stuever

THE WASHINGTON POST – I was as disappointed as anyone when NASA scrubbed Wednesday afternoon’s exciting launch of Elon Musk’s Space X rocket, upon which a hipster-era capsule named the Dragon, sitting atop a booster named after Han Solo’s hot-rod, would have carried two American astronauts, whom we all simply refer to as Bob and Doug, up to the International Space Station, after a decade in which our trips to orbit have meant hitching rides with Russia.

Even our national bad-luck charm, United States (US) President Donald Trump, flew to Cape Canaveral to witness this historic moment in the history of the public-private sphere.

There is so much to satirise in all this, right? Elon, the Donald, Bob-‘n’-Doug, the Dragon on the Falcon, the logos, the lightning strikes, the weird melding of corporate uptalk and official NASA-speak – why, one could almost write the jokes in one’s sleep.

Unfortunately, that seems to be precisely what co-creators Greg Daniels and Steve Carell have done with their disappointingly clunky new Netflix comedy series, Space Force, which spends a lot of effort just trying to get off the ground.

How could this show have failed? A commission will have to be appointed to conduct a more formal inquiry, but, as NASA might remind us, don’t overlook the most likely cause: When an obvious joke has already been made in real life, it’s probably not a great idea to try to make the same joke over and over again, two years later, for 10 whole episodes.

Space Force is of course ripe with satirical potential – both as a TV show, and as the newest branch of the US military, as put forward by the Trump administration in 2018 and established late last year with the dubious goal of returning astronauts to the moon by 2024. Carell and Daniels’ wicked little hearts are absolutely in the right place, as the show attempts to lampoon such stalwart disgraces as unchecked military spending, anti-science nincompoops elected to high office, outmoded organisational structures, Silicon Valley-style overconfidence and the way 21st Century PR management (via Twitter) has contaminated trustworthy information.

A scene from ‘Space Force’. PHOTO: NETFLIX
ABOVE & BELOW: John Malkovich portrays the morally conflicted chief scientist, Dr Adrian Mallory; Diana Silvers and Lisa Kudrow, play Erin and Maggie Naird, the general’s daughter and wife, respectively. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST

Carell, forever beloved for his Emmy-nominated work as paper-supply regional office manager Michael Scott on The Office, stars here as decorated Air Force General Mark Naird. Expecting to be promoted to head the Air Force, Naird is devastated to learn that he has instead been chosen as the first to command the new US Space Force, headquartered at a remote facility in Colorado.

Naird’s peers in the other military branches openly mock his appointment (they are played by Noah Emmerich, Jane Lynch and Patrick Warburton – Space Force is strewn with impressive but largely superficial cameos). The general’s wife, Maggie (Lisa Kudrow), weeps quietly in bed as the news of the assignment sinks in.

Leaping forward a year, the Space Force is pretty much the expensive boondoggle everyone assumed it would be.

Naird is under pressure to put those “boots on the moon”, while meeting steadfast resistance from a morally conflicted chief scientist, Dr Adrian Mallory (John Malkovich). Enduring the daily, bumbling efforts of his social media manager, F Tony Scarapiducci (Ben Schwartz) and the taunts of the Chinese space force, the general occasionally copes by singing pop ditties to himself, such the Beach Boys’ Kokomo or the Four Seasons’s Big Girls Don’t Cry – the aural equivalent of margarita mix for his wearied yet stringent psyche.

The adjustment has been a disaster for his family, with Maggie Naird now serving a 40- to 60-year sentence in a nearby maximum-security prison (for what crime, viewers cannot know, which becomes a running untold joke), leaving the general to care for the couple’s peevish teenage daughter, Erin (Diana Silvers).

Eventually the formalities subside and General Naird just becomes “Mark”, a stressed-out protagonist needing our sympathies for the many challenges that Space Force has heaped upon him.

There’s a shady Russian military officer (Alex Sparrow), sent by the White House, who insists he’s not a spy, and others who try to thwart the general’s leadership and decisions.

Carell brings recognisable traces of Michael Scott to the role, including a vulnerability that makes up for the incompetence.

To this he has added a more gruff and occasionally bullheaded personality, and it can be quite funny in fleeting doses, such as when he’s barking orders at a disobedient space monkey. Yet something about Carell’s character never quite clicks. It’s Malkovich – as both the voice of reason and the character most galled by the absurdities of the Space Force mission – who truly rises above the show’s difficulties with pace and tone, and thereby generates the most laughs.

This is something of a revelation to those of us who run rather hot or cold on Malkovich; until the COVID-19 shutdown, I was still considering forming a support group of viewers agonised by his work in HBO’s The New Pope.

Forget all that. Here, he’s the real hero.

While there’s no limit to Space Force’s premise and the talent available to execute it (including Silicon Valley’s Jimmy O. Yang as a scientist; Tawny Newsome as a helicopter pilot who dreams of helming the Space Force’s crew of lunar colonists; and brief appearances from the late, great Fred Willard, as Mark’s senile father), the show seems to work against itself, trying too hard for something that seems like it should have been easy, while juggling far too many characters and side-plots. You watch the episodes with a forced smile, wishing it would just get better.

And to some extent it does, more than midway through this batch of episodes, as Mark is faced with a series of professional and personal choices that require him to act against his sense of duty and instead follow his conscience.

This development is hardly a spoiler, as most of Space Force’s efforts can be seen coming from light-years away – ending on a ho-hum cliffhanger that suggests there’s more to come.

That’s probably an acceptable decision, especially when one considers those first, shakier seasons of such like-minded comedies as 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation, which got better as they learned to float free.

Even The Office had to flex a bit before it found its comfort zone. Space Force’s failures may appear to be critical, but let’s not cancel the whole programme just yet.

There are parts worth saving.