Netflix’s Space Force Is Stuck Between The Space Of The Office And The Force Of Veep, Film Companion

Creators: Greg Daniels, Steve Carell

Cast: Steve Carell, John Malkovich, Ben Schwartz, Diana Silvers, Tawny Newsome

Streaming on: Netflix

Space Force is the sort of series we’re programmed to root for. First, there are the dream-team names. It’s co-created by Greg Daniels, the man behind The Office (U.S.), Parks and Recreation and most recently, Upload. It also marks co-creator and star Steve Carell’s long-awaited return to television comedy – his “roots” – after years of reinventing himself as a dramatic performer. There’s also the great John Malkovich, finally weaponizing the scornful sarcasm of his distinct sense of diction. The chemistry between Carell, playing the doer, and Malkovich, the thinker, is the stuff of bromantic dreams. To top it off, the versatile list of six directors features Dee Rees (Mudbound) and Paul King (Paddington 2).

Then there’s the premise – a “work-space” comedy centered on a four-star Air Force General, Mark Naird (Carell), tasked with establishing the United States Space Force as a new and independent military wing of the Armed Forces. Naird is the kind of proud veteran who would approve of how often I’ve repeated the word “force” in the previous sentence. Naird’s chief scientist is Dr. Adrian Mallory (Malkovich), a man so in awe of his own mind that he is disdainful of the uniforms and suits running the establishment. He is both Naird’s conscience and verbal sparring partner. The legacy project of the Space Force is “boots on the moon” – a lunar inhabitation mission that has been pushed forward by four years. Naturally, Naird and Mallory are surrounded by the sort of eccentric, politically incorrect characters that have long formed the deadpan core of American sitcom entertainment. 

At first glance, the problem with Space Force is obvious. It seems to be based in a Veep universe with The Office players, as a result of which it optimizes neither tone to the fullest. The narrative is uneven – a strange mix of satire (the mission control portions) and sincerity (Naird’s personal life) that underpins the so-unfunny-it’s-funny brand of Greg Daniels’ comedy. Carell invokes his best Michael Scott and Maxwell Smart impressions as the under-pressure boss of the wing. The actor is a master of incompetent-hero humour, most evident in a nutty second episode where Naird and his team remotely instruct an experimental space chimpanzee to repair a damaged satellite. Almost simultaneously, Carell does his soulful dysfunctional-family-man routine – a conconction of his Dan In Real Life, Date Night, Crazy Stupid Love and Beautiful Boy avatars – as the father of a displaced teenage daughter (Diana Silvers) and the husband of an incarcerated woman (Lisa Kudrow). A running joke across the season is Naird’s impending “conjugal visit” to his wife; all his employees are well aware of his sex drought. But when the moment finally comes, it is surprisingly tender. Barely six months into her life term (we’re never told why), she asks for an open marriage because “being faithful is never supposed to hurt the person you love”. Carell’s anguished face, for a fleeting minute, turns Space Force into a heartbreaking family drama. Seconds later, the Peter Sellers in him re-emerges as he emotionally flies off in his helicopter without realizing that he’s left his daughter behind.

The makers trust us to locate humour in the delusions of American democracy, but everything about POTUS stopped being funny ages ago

But I believe there’s more to this bipolarity than meets the eye. The Trump administration has been such a circus since 2016 that it has single-handedly destroyed the novelty of original political satire. Its truth is infinitely stranger than the sort of heightened fiction that stand-up comics, sitcom writers or dark spy thrillers thrive on. Space Force, otherwise designed as a send-up of the Trump era, seems to be aware of the fact that no matter how outrageous the series looks, it may never outdo the surrealism of today’s White House shenanigans. It reaches for space but grasps at the earth. Consequently, much of it plays out as a POTUS playground fantasy. Viral videos of animals in space, fur-on-crop experiments, a paintball competition with Air Force rivals, Chinese satellites “clipping” off the solar panels of an American orbitor, the Chinese trampling over the U.S. flag on the moon, India “stealing” America’s rocket technology, Congress budget hearings featuring a theatrical AOC mimic, a lunar sabotage mission – the setting is spoofy and childish because it’s how President Trump imagines his beloved Space Force functions. This is what he probably visualized – and still does – when he sanctioned the formation of this expensive wing for “space warfare”. 

General Naird is essentially a patriotic Trump stooge who tries to come of age, just as Space Force is an inadvertently authentic advertisement of Republican fever dreams that tries to escape its own voice. The makers trust us to locate humour in the delusions of American democracy, but everything about POTUS stopped being funny ages ago. Occupying the moon and waging war on it is hardly an irrational desire of his. The season finale, which might go down as one of the worst in recent history, marks a precise point where fiction is so distraught by truth that they blow up one another in a blaze of incomplete glory. Come to think of it, most of the characters in Space Force are parodies of actual public figures. But it’s hard to tell the difference these days. After all, a parody of a parody is simply reality. And, to paraphrase Dr. Mallory, that’s just a perplexing equation.   

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