Whether we like it or not, the American adaptation of The Office defined the sitcom for the majority of the late 2000s and 2010s. What started as a riff on Ricky Gervais’ show quickly skyrocketed into pop culture, leaving the British original in the dust. The mix of clever writing and memorable characters made it a hit. Now, seven years later, the creator Greg Daniels and star Steve Carell teamed up for a new venture – the timely Space Force, inspired by real American efforts to branch out their military into the outer space.
The show follows a four star General Mark Naird (Carell), who’s named the head of the newly formed Space Force. Throughout the season, Naird tackles multiple obstacles from all aspects of his life – be it the clash between his work and family, or solving problems inside his own base while trying to beat the Chinese on this race to space domination. Naird’s family is rounded out by his wife Maggie (Lisa Kudrow) and daughter Erin (Diana Silvers), the two of whom worked together last year on Booksmart.
Steve Carell’s performance is a cross between his star making Michael Scott and an impression of Brad Pitt’s Glenn McMahon from the 2017’s War Machine. The dickish arrogance of General Naird was a staple of almost every mainstream comedy some ten years ago, but as time moves on it has become more annoying and, well, arrogant than funny. The real star of this family is the daughter Erin. Although Diana Silvers has been typecasted into a “indie weird girl” type of role, she pulls it off with flying colours; a real scene stealer. At its core, the show is about family. The struggles of a father-daughter relationship are by far the best moments of Space Force, allowing Carell to get more dramatic and the show to focus on something else than just jokes.
Back at the Space Force base, Naird is surrounded by a cast of colourful characters. Some of these include head scientist Dr. Adrian Mallory (John Malkovich), media consultant “Fuck” Tony (Ben Schwartz) and an ambitious Captain Angela Ali (Tawny Newsome). While most of the cast of Space Force plays your basic tropes for a sitcom, it’s Malkovich as a quiet, yet opinionated scientist who’s the best character by far. It’s among his more subtle performances, yet it yields multiple great comedic moments, due to his natural charisma. And the clash and interplay between the military-bred Naird and the pacifist Mallory is almost always the comedic highlight of each episode, effectively saving the show. However, as much fun as he is, a ‘twist’ in the second half of the show almost ruins the character.
Ben Schwartz also gets a few jokes, but his character is somewhat of a needless paradox. Tony’s purpose on the show is so that the audience has an entertaining character they can hate along with the other characters, yet he’s the one representing and parodying the millennial generation – the show’s target audience. What may have been thought of as a clever commentary ends up feeling like a reel of cringy punchlines. Especially in the first couple episodes, he’s really annoying for no reason whatsoever.
In fact, much of Space Force is built this way. As pointed out early on in the show “there’s nothing embarrassing or comical about it” and that serves as the ironical self-evaluation of the show’s humour. The overall awkwardness, mainly from Naird, feels very much stuck in The Office days. Not only Carell, but the entire cast should have been given more to work with as most of them have proven they can handle dramatic roles. And it’s often these introspective, more honest moments that are the pinnacles of individual episodes.
Being inherently political, just from the premise, the show delivers satire and political commentary, although not to the extent it may think it does. On one hand, it’s poking fun at every part of the American government, from the likes of the republican president Donald Trump to the young democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. On the other hand, it falls flat in its parody, pulling punches and careful not to offend anyone too much.
Most of the show is very episodic, serving ten short stories instead of one narrative. The overarching story threads are pretty loose, as there’s not much connecting it together and nearly all of the characters, with the exception of Captain Angela, end up with unfinished or unsatisfactory character arcs by the time the first season wraps up. Even though there’s little from her at the beginning, she eventually becomes one of the central characters in the last few episodes.
All of my main issues with Space Force are pretty much only in the first half. The show is unbalanced, unsure of its tone or even what characters does it want to focus on. Luckily, it eventually finds its footing with the 5th episode titled SPACE FLAG, directed by the brilliant Dee Rees. Instead of trying to deliver multiple punchlines in each scene, the show rather goes for an overall lighter mood to deliver its comedy.
However, just as the journey was starting to get interesting, Space Force somewhat abruptly ends its season. The finale is open-ended and unsatisfactory, especially when binging, leaving us to wait and see what the second season holds. If only the show focused a bit more on Naird’s family rather than parodying the political climate, Space Force would have gained a strong emotional centre and worked so much better for it.
As of right now, Space Force is an unbalanced mix of predictable comedy and stereotypical characters, while also providing genuine moments of humanity and great dramatic acting on Carell’s part. Space is the final frontier. Launching full throttle to the stars should always be a magnificent, unmatched moment. In an ideal case, Space Force could have embodied that. Rather, it’s a bit unsure about the speed.