Space Force Review: Humor and Heart in American Absurdity

There’s not a lot of funny to be found in the headlines right now, but Steve Carell and Greg Daniels’ new Netflix series Space Force still manages to mine plenty of comedy from the strange and occasionally terrifying place where America currently finds itself.

Part workplace sitcom, part parody of a wildly dysfunctional government, Space Force is the creation of The Office collaborators Daniels and Carell. The latter headlines the show as General Mark R. Naird, the reluctant leader of the U.S. military’s newest branch.

The series surrounds Carell with an impressive cast, including two-time Oscar nominee John Malkovich as Dr. Adrian Mallory, the agency’s head scientist and Naird’s second-in-command. Parks and Recreation actor Ben Schwartz portrays Space Force’s bombastic communications director F. Tony Scarapiducci (a parody of former White House director of communications Anthony Scaramucci), while comedian Tawny Newsome portrays Angela Ali, a Space Force pilot who aspires to become an astronaut.

Rounding out the cast is Lisa Kudrow as Naird’s wife, Maggie; Diana Silvers as Naird’s teenage daughter, Erin; comedian Jimmy O. Yang as scientist Dr. Chen Kaifang; and Don Lake as General Brad Gregory, Naird’s frustratingly incompetent assistant.

Over the course of its first, 10-episode season, Space Force follows Naird as his life and career careen through one momentous — or disastrous — event after the next. A sought-after promotion leads to a surprise appointment as the first “Chief of Space Operations” for the widely mocked Space Force, marriage troubles segue into parenting troubles, and a constant barrage of confusing directives from a volatile, oversensitive commander in chief tests Naird’s ability to manage his motley team of scientists and military castoffs on the fly.

Throughout much of its first season, Space Force is an exceedingly dark satire of disaster mitigation at the highest levels, filled with narcissistic personalities making decisions that affect countless human lives and billions of taxpayer dollars. An early joke about measuring a rocket’s cost in the number of schools that money could have built (made shortly after a rocket explodes on the launchpad) is a great example of the series’ vibe.

Yet Space Force also manages to be lighthearted and sincere.

Carrell leads a strong cast

Naird’s struggle to live up to the standards he sets for himself as both a husband and father delivers some surprisingly heartfelt moments. Carell does well exploring the two worlds his character operates within and the conflicting emotions that result.

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While Carrell’s portrayal of Naird doesn’t demand the gravitas of his dramatic performances in films like Beautiful Boy and the underappreciated Welcome to Marwen, he makes the most of the sincere moments Space Force gives his character. Despite his comically exaggerated jingoism and stubborn pride, Naird wants the best for the people around him and his family, and Carell is at his best when he’s effortlessly flitting between these two seemingly opposing sides of his character’s personality.

The series also benefits from the phenomenal pairing of Carell and Malkovich, a constantly bickering duo tasked with enacting the agency’s mission “to put boots on the moon,” as ordered by the ever-present but never visible U.S. president.

As Mallory, Malkovich mixes a subdued Dr. Strangelove with a gloriously exaggerated parody of celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. His performance bounces between passive-aggressive rebellion against the agency’s military elements, and overt snark as Naird continually shows his lack of (and disdain for) scientific knowledge.

The two actors have a chemistry that’s fascinating to watch, and their sparring is a recurring highlight of the series that would be impossible to achieve with any other combination of actors.

In supporting roles, many of the series other familiar faces feel a bit underutilized, with Schwartz and Kudrow not given nearly as much screen time as you might expect. Their roles seem positioned for greater presence in the second season, though, and it speaks to the series’ strength that its true breakout performances come from its lesser-known cast members.

Newsome and Yang (Silicon Valley) in particular manage to steal every scene they’re in — no small feat when they’re often sharing the screen with Carell and Malkovich. Both actors’ roles grow as the first season of Space Force progresses, and the expanded parts they seem poised to play in season 2 make a potential renewal even more appealing.

The story is a step behind its characters

The great cast of Space Force keeps things interesting even when the show is still figuring out what it wants to be.

Much like two of Daniels’ best-known projects, The Office and Parks and RecreationSpace Force occasionally suffers from an identity crisis in its first season.

Over the course of the first 10 episodes, Space Force shifts between black comedy and silly sitcom from one scene to the next — and occasionally, within the same scene — chugging along on a mix of lowbrow pratfalls and dark, sharp satire. One minute the show has Naird lobbing a so-dumb-it’s-funny dad joke at Mallory, and in the next, it hits you with a biting metacommentary on the myth of American exceptionalism.

Belly laughs and jokes that make you wince are tossed out in equal measure, and the pinballing nature of the show’s humor occasionally makes it feel a bit disjointed.

Space Force also suffers from pacing issues, with some episodes beginning where the previous one left off, and others jumping ahead indeterminate amounts of time. This fluctuating passage of time makes it feel like things tend to move quickly in Space Force, except when they don’t — which can lead to some confusion as the season’s overarching story unfolds.

This “did I miss an episode somewhere” feeling is strongest near the end of the first season, as the show’s timeline takes a few unexpected forward leaps.

A successful launch

Fortunately, the problems with the first season of Space Force are minor growing pains for a project as ambitious and quickly developing as this show. History has shown that Daniels is more than capable of ironing out exactly these issues. Space Force has all the pieces in place for a project that not only delivers on the tremendous hype it’s generated, but offers something unique that makes it more than just The Office or Parks and Recreation in space.

Unlike the rocket that Naird watches explode in the show’s premiere, Space Force deftly avoids a failure to launch in its first season, and gives you reason to look forward to its second.

All 10 episodes of the first season of Space Force will debut May 29 on Netflix.

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