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The new Steve Carell sitcom struggles to find its footing
By Emily Heller May 29, 2020, 9:35am EDT
Photo: Aaron Epstein/Netflix
General Mark Naird, Steve Carell’s character in the new Netflix sitcom Space Force, is not Michael Scott. Carell, who reteams with The Office showrunner Greg Daniels for the series, makes that clear with Naird’s voice, a gravelly growl reminiscent of Christian Bale’s Batman. It’s arresting to those who remember Michael’s eager tenor, but it makes its point. Where the Dunder Mifflin regional manager is a ridiculous man doing a boring job, General Naird is a boring man doing a ridiculous job: running the United States Space Force.
Daniels’ new series follows General Naird as he attempts to follow the president’s orders of getting “boots on the moon by 2024.” Though initially laughing off the task, Naird tells his wife, Maggie, “I can be flexible if I’m ordered to be.” He accepts the job and moves his family, including teenage daughter Erin (Diana Silvers), to a secret Space Force base in Colorado. There, General Naird butts heads with his lead scientist, Dr. Adrian Mallory (John Malkovich) as he carries out his mission to militarize space.
A potential solution for all Space Force problems: “Bomb!”Photo: Aaron Epstein/Netflix
With The Office headed to NBC’s upcoming Peacock streaming service next year, Space Force arrives with the aura of a casual, background-watching sitcom replacement. But while the sitcom is (mostly) enjoyable, it shares little in common with Daniels and Carell’s previous team up aside from the duo’s involvement. In this first season, the stakes are too high and the references too political for the series to become a universally beloved comfort food show like The Office (and other NBC sitcoms like Friends or Parks and Recreation.)
That’s not to say that Space Force isn’t funny or compelling. After a rocky premiere episode, Space Force settles into an offbeat rhythm: Naird is faced with a situation that he’s unequipped to handle, Dr. Mallory disagrees with his solution, conflict ensues. (To be fair, it’s rare for a sitcom to have a great pilot — it’s hard to introduce characters, set up plotlines, and establish a tone while also landing jokes.)
In practice, Space Force is closer to HBO’s Veep than The Office. Both shows are hybrids of political satire and workplace comedy. Their biggest conflicts stem from the main characters’ frustrations with Washington combined with a stubborn desire to do things their way, often in spite of expert advice to the contrary. But while Veep showrunner Armando Iannucci is more than happy to paint Selina Meyer and her team as universally terrible people (the show is famous for its raunchy, profanity-laden insults,) Daniels is more sympathetic to his characters. Naird is portrayed as rigid and bull-headed, but also as an overwhelmed leader trying to do the right thing.
The most memorable scene of the first episode is when Naird rushes into his office, seeming close to a panic attack. He takes a few deep breaths, then starts singing The Beach Boys’ “Kokomo” to himself, eventually breaking out into unrestrained dancing. Once he’s let it all out, he snaps back to attention and heads back out to address his staff.
The show is at its best when it veers gleefully into the absurd. That’s Carell’s comedy strike zone, but because he’s playing such a buttoned-up character, Daniels and the Space Force writers need to find other opportunities for absurdity. In the second episode, Naird attempts to communicate with an astronaut monkey that has recently been abandoned in space, along with an astronaut dog. While Carell plays it straight-faced, the image of him yelling at a CGI monkey, and Malkovich openly ridiculing the idea, is unreservedly hilarious.
This man’s name is Fuck Tony.Photo: Aaron Epstein/Netflix
Carell and Malkovich playing straight men gives supporting characters plenty of opportunities to shine. Ben Schwartz is perfectly cast as Space Force’s media manager, the inscrutably named Fuck Tony Scarapiducci. (My best guess is that it’s a play on Fuck Jerry.) F. Tony is much more grounded (and less lovable) than Schwartz’s unhinged Parks and Rec character Jean-Ralphio, but he has a similar jumpy, excitable energy that serves as a nice contrast to General Naird’s stoicism.
Tawny Newsome, frequent Comedy Bang Bang guest and co-host of the podcast Yo, Is This Racist?, pops up as the show’s most interesting and likable character, an ambitious young Space Force captain named Angela. In her first appearance, Angela defies an order from General Naird, leading to a grudging respect between them. Her budding relationship with scientist Dr. Chen (Silicon Valley’s Jimmy O. Yang) is a charming take on the will-they-or-won’t-they trope. With tons of charisma and sharp comedic timing, Newsome could easily be leading a show of her own.
One of the funniest scenes of the show is a bit where two of the maintenance workers tasked with establishing a lunar colony, played by alt-comedy stars Chris Gethard and Aparna Nancherla, ask Dr. Mallory about the specifics of their mission. The two bounce off of each other with questions like, “Which moon are we going to?,” “Are we expected to breed?,” and “When is Christmas on the moon?” Gethard and Nancherla deliver the jokes with an intense sincerity, which Malkovich answers with resigned frustration. It’s the first exchange that made me laugh out loud, and embodies Space Force at its best, most ridiculous self.
“It’s good to be black on the moon.” —Captain Angela AliPhoto: Aaron Epstein/Netflix
The show is less capable as a political parody, where its only point seems to be “Boy, this president sure has some dumb ideas, huh?” Though explicitly based on an initiative pushed by the current administration, President Trump is never mentioned by name. Instead, the writers make wink-wink-nudge-nudge references that are too obvious to be funny. “POTUS wants to make some changes,” announces the secretary of defense, “He’s tweeting about it in five minutes.”
While Trump never appears, and is only obliquely referenced, Space Force directly parodies other famous names, but to what ultimate point is unclear. In one episode, Kaitlin Olson (It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia) guest stars as an entrepreneur obviously based off of Elizabeth Holmes, the Theranos founder charged with fraud. While Olson does an eerily good impression of Holmes’ intense affect, the character doesn’t serve any larger story purpose or comment meaningfully on the entrepreneur or Theranos. Likewise, an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez analogue is referred to as “the angry young congresswoman,” but the show doesn’t decide if the categorization is condescendingly reductive or bitingly accurate.
Two bros chilling in a golf cart.Photo: Aaron Epstein/Netflix
The overtly political premise is attention grabbing, but Daniels never quite feels comfortable within that framework. In fairness, he didn’t know when he was pitching the show that Space Force was going to become a reality outside of Trump’s twitter feed. But once this administration established Space Force as an official branch of the U.S. military, the show was forced to take on the burden of parody rather than a silly premise inspired by something that the president once ranted about.
Space Force isn’t the next Office, but it is a worthy workplace sitcom. Though the pilot is quite bad and there are a few episodes that feel unsteady and pointless, plenty of great jokes and a few moments of genuine brilliance — episode 8, “Conjugal Visit,” is just a categorically solid episode of television — prove Daniels and Carell are obvious masters of the genre. Sitcoms rely so heavily on character relationships that it generally takes a while to find a groove, so it’s worth seeing what the creator and team can do with season 2 as the series leaves the atmosphere of The Office to find its own place in the streaming universe.
Space Force season 1 is now streaming on Netflix.
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