Oh Greg Daniels. I loved The Office, and every glorious second of Michael Scott. I waited for Space Force, Netflix’s new sitcom starring Steve Carrell as the grey-haired head of the newest branch of the US military with all the eager anticipation of a Labrador Retriever before snack time. I sang along to Kokomo by the Beach Boys for days, inspired only by the briefest glimpse of the song in the trailer. With Steve Carell, John Malkovich, Lisa Kudrow and Ben Schwartz in the cast, what could go wrong?
The set up is promising. General Mark Naird (Carell) has just been promoted to the rank of Four Star General, which means he will head a branch of the military. That is not, as he expects, the Air Force, but the Space Force – the newest branch of the military set up by the (unnamed) President of the United States. This comes with some challenges – the uncooperative Dr. Adrian Mallory (Malkovich), the Chief Scientist, a sulky teenage daughter Erin (Diana Silvers) and a wife, Maggie (Kudrow) who is in prison for reasons nobody knows.
There are the beginnings of political satire – the Space Force social media director is called F. Tony Scarapiducci (Schwartz, channelling Jean-Ralphio from Parks and Recreation), where the F stands for “Fuck,” and a speaker of Congress called Ms. Pitosi. There is a foul-mouthed Secretary of Defence played by Dan Bakkedahl (Roger Furlong from Veep). There are clever little names – General Kick Grabaston, for instance, is over the top as a sexist, juvenile General of the Air Force.
And then, like the satellite triumphantly launched into space in Episode 1, only to be attacked by a foreign power within hours of reaching orbit, things begin to fall apart. The unnamed POTUS is mean and petty, and the gags about the First Lady’s attempts to redesign the Space Force uniforms don’t get all the laughs they possibly could. Nor is the storyline about a chimpanzee and dog in outer space explored to all its comedic potential.
Naird’s emotional troubles don’t receive any better treatment. His PTSD resurfaces during his stay on the lunar habitat, which makes the gags about eating ants and growing potatoes and the sand sculptor who plays the didgeridoo rather less funny. But there is no larger narrative to tie it all together. That worked for The Office, where the whole point was the pointlessness and lack-of-narrative-ness of the modern workplace. It doesn’t work as well when the show’s creators eloquently justify their existence as a branch of the military.
Nor do the jokes land. The word play is all right (“Meal Armstrong” ice cream), but the one-liners about politics sound more like first drafts and less like finished jokes. Erin the teenage daughter rolls her eyes at someone with a “dumb State” accent, which is a bit rich for someone dating a Russian agent who only likes her because her father is a general. Pro-choice activists storm a congressional hearing, only to be treated like they are a routine annoyance. And we never learn – not after ten episodes, not even an entire episode about a conjugal visit – why Maggie Naird is in jail for 40 years.
Space Force’s problem is that it still isn’t sure what it’s meant to be. It doesn’t quite allow its characters to descend into the potty-mouthed, over the top madness of Avenue 5, nor does it stick with the deeply human ordinariness of The Office. There is obvious political satire, with the talk of wars and congressional hearings, but falls short of exposing the out-and-out ridiculousness of it all.
It’s never the wholesome, good-hearted humour of Parks and Recreation, where well-intentioned people really do try to do their best, nor does it ever allow itself to engage in the irreverent, unabashed nastiness of Veep. A video of Dr. Mallory serenading his didgeridoo-playing sand sculptor boyfriend is played, but we learn no more than that the sardonic, tough-as-nails space scientist is actually a big old softie. The other romances – Captain Ali and Dr. Chen, Mark Naird and Kelly the civilian contractor, Maggie and the prison guard – feel forced. And we’re never sure what Erin Naird is doing in the story.
As for Mark Naird himself, well, I don’t know what he is. He isn’t the incompetent-but-lovable Michael Scott – he’s a doting father who helps his daughter with her trigonometry homework, he’s smart enough to understand human nature and make judgments on the people he works with, and politically savvy enough to make impassioned speeches before Congress. But he also suspects that Dr. Chan Kaifang is a spy for China based on his appearance, is very keen on bombing problems to make them go away, and stupid enough to go running in full lunar gear in the desert, despite being told not to. Steve Carell and John Malkovich are spectacular comic talents let down by a disappointing script, while none of the other characters develop very much at all. Not even a ginormous budget can hide this.
Now, Greg Daniels’ comedies usually take until Season 2 to really find their feet. It was only in the Season 2 premiere that the Office came into its own. And let’s face it, the Leslie Knope and Andy Dwyer of Season 1 of Parks and Recreation were not the characters we know and love from later seasons. That said, Season 1 of Space Force feels less complete and more rushed than those shows ever were. I hate to say it, but watching all ten episodes felt like a chore.
Space Force is just barely promising enough to keep my fingers crossed for Season 2, but that’s only because I’m hoping against hope that Daniels and Carell will pull something off yet again. But for now, I’d recommend an Office re-run instead of this.