Space Force, a comedy engineered from our government’s current mission of establishing a sixth, space-focused arm of the military, presents itself as a mix of co-creator Greg Daniel’s previous series; the interpersonal follies of The Office, the bumbling absurdity of Parks and Recreation‘s structures of power, and the modernity of Upload, all built on the foundation of hesitant optimism his work has embodied since the early days of King of the Hill. Yet, Space Force arrives in a very different sociopolitical climate than his previous trio of shows exploring Americana have; in the Daniels-verse, government incompetence and bloat is but a platform for hilarity, and regressive leaders with shitty morals are forgiven because of their “good hearts”. What it leads to, is one of the more infuriating misfires of the year, a hollow, ignorant show that is not only wildly unfunny, but actively harmful in how it portrays its characters – and more importantly, how it reflects the both sides-ism permeating mainstream political fiction.
From its empty characters and nondescript setting, to its refusal to penetrate the idiotic surface of its bumbling, bone-headed protagonist, Space Force‘s hands-off approach to drawing real-life parallels is disturbingly empty.
And yes, all of this can be said without directly examining Space Force‘s individual points of view on politics; it wants to be able to poke fun at the current president, but do so in a way that won’t piss off Republican Netflix subscribers. To do so, it has to cater to empty chairs: scenes of characters making jokes about the unnamed president’s latest Twitter storm, butt up against scenes like Vanessa Hudgen’s embarrassingly terrible “impersonation” of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (it’s so bad it makes SNL‘s recent forays into political humor seem exciting and original by comparison).
It also has to cater to its main character, Carell’s Mark Naird, a character who can only be described as an “absolute shithead”. The balance Veep found with its main character was a tough one – and honestly, one the writers struggled to manage from episode to episode; after all, to effectively satire the present, you’ve got to commit to going down some dark, divisive roads. Veep often steered directly into that, for better or worse: Space Force‘s refusal to do so with Naird, to treat him with kid gloves by treating the humanity and conscience he displays for the last thirty seconds of each episode as his defining traits.
I’m sure dozens of reviews will compare Michael Scott to Mark Naird; to do so would be a foolish error, given how those two shows approached executive dysfunction. For The Office, it brilliantly displayed, with characters like Michael and David, the corruption of having enough power not to give a shit; if Michael Scott had any redeeming quality, it was his willingness to sacrifice his power to be loved by his colleagues. Mark Naird has none of these qualities, and Space Force‘s establishment-friendly message – the one that says even the most incompetent people can do good things, which makes them ok! – is markedly different than those Daniels embraced nearly two decades ago (it’s not surprising: after all, Leslie Knope now happily works for Trump’s Interior Department, lest we forget).
But Space Force has nothing to say about the very real-world story it wants to satirize (in fact, the real world story the entire premise is built on); and, where we are right now, it feels downright destructive to watch a show make half-assed jokes about how the government willingly kills, surveil, and wastes the hard-earned capital of its people, all in the name of “progress”. Sure, Space Force has its fun (with its male characters, at least: one could write pages about the absolute lack of female presence on this series), with plots about the Air Force and Space Force playing pretend war games, or when Naird sends a monkey into space to fix the international space station. But these breezy, weightless plots aren’t backed up with anything of import or depth: from its characters and nondescript setting, to its refusal to penetrate the idiotic surface of its bumbling, bone-headed protagonist, Space Force‘s hands-off approach to drawing real-life parallels is disturbingly empty.
(Did I mention Lisa Kudrow plays his estranged wife, thrown in prison during a time skip for reasons that are never even remotely explained? It is one of the most “what the actual fuck were they thinking” moments of 2020).
It’s really too bad, because there is potential for something much more interesting, a show focused more on John Malkovich’s Dr. Adrian Mallory, and Tawny Newsome’s Angela Ali. Of all the characters on Space Force (a cast that includes Noah Emmerich and Ben Schwartz in equally unfunny, annoying roles), Dr. Mallory and Angela offer the most promise as ensemble members to build around. As is often the case, Malkovich brings his own strange energy to the project, a Dr. Strangelove-lite whose analytical approach to life often puts him at odds with Mark (in the dumbest version of the “faith vs. science” debate – this show gives them a lot of banter together, and almost none of it works).
Newsome’s Angela, Naird’s overqualified personal pilot, also offers an interesting take on the world around her; smarter than her boss, and more qualified and intelligent than her inferiors, Angela feels like the real victim of a system built on white male privilege and misguided intentions, a much more compelling POV character than the entitled bullshit Mark Naird injects into every single episode.
Space Force couldn’t have come at a worse time; while the President tweets about letting the National Guard shoot American citizens, the arrival of a show trying to sitcom-ize the incompetence of a government that’s let 100,000 people die and the same few people get richer just feels lifeless, especially in comparison to braver, funnier series like Superstore. Space Force just wants to make jokes and hurt nobody’s feelings, pulling freely from the events in our reality, without having to take ownership or investment in any of it. There’s no joy in that for an audience, or humor to be found – had Space Force really committed to the black comedy behind its premise, it could be one of the most illuminating shows on TV. Instead, it’s just another tasteless side dish in the corporate buffet of bullshit that is life in 2020, an unsettling reminder of the empty platitudes and willful, well-educated parade of ignorance and privilege that got us here.