The Office‘s Greg Daniels and Steve Carell reunite for a clunky satire of Trump-era politics.
Comedy in the streaming era is a tricky thing. It’s an art form that, by design, requires trial and error and feedback in order to get better, which is the complete opposite of Netflix’s model of dumping entire seasons at once.
There’s a reason why no sane person will ever say the first episodes of the US version of The Office, Parks & Recreation, Seinfeld, or The Simpsons are their favorite episodes of those shows. They all evolved into something greater because they had the time between their early episodes to gauge what audiences were responding to positively or negatively, which allowed them to retool and adjust on the fly.
No one knows this better than Greg Daniels, who (insanely) either helped create or write for all of those modern comedy institutions. So it’s unfortunate Netflix gives us the full 10-episode first season of Daniels’ latest show, Space Force, still stuck in its gross, unfunny cocoon form.
The show, which Daniels co-created with lead Steve Carell, was developed soon after President Trump announced the sixth branch of the United States military in 2018. The combination of the childish name (SPACE FORCE!) with the ignorant hate monster who announced it writes its own comedy and the great minds of Daniels and Carell reacted accordingly.
Space Force begins with Carell’s General Mark R. Naird unwittingly getting the assignment to lead this newest military branch. The show never mentions Trump by name (referring to him as “POTUS”) but Naird is given several MAGA-typical characteristics — namely a disdain towards scientific facts, and a lack of empathy towards others, even cute astronaut dogs. He’s like a gravel-voiced Michael Scott, but less likable.
He butts heads with the career scientists and government officials that make up the rest of the Space Force, like John Malkovich’s Dr. Adrian Mallory, who is the logical yin to Naird’s blowhard yang.
The idea of the American military using its unlimited power to build a presence in outer space, and the unhinged characters within its vast bureaucracy, gives the show a solid foundation for some effective satire. But Space Force is a series that can’t really lock down its target: Parks and Recreation was a show making fun of local government, but at the end of the day, it was clear it ultimately saw government as a force for good in the hands of principled, caring people. Space Force is a show making fun of the Military-Industrial Complex in the modern era, but at the end of the day, it’s not really sure where it stands.
In one episode, Gen. Naird and Dr. Mallory have to defend their reasoning behind the massive amount of spending the Space Force requires in front of a congressional panel. The show is built around how excessive and unnecessary this new military branch is — that is, until Dr. Mallory gives a well-reasoned argument that the Space Force could, in theory, help improve weather prediction with new, advanced satellites, saving lives and untold billions in disaster relief. It’s an effective speech, but its earnestness muddles the comedy.
The jokes themselves are also scarce, and when they do show up, they can be painfully all over the place. That congressional hearing scene is a great example. At the beginning of the scene, an ancient, conservative congressman joyfully ends his opening speech extolling the virtues of “this majestic flat Earth of ours!” It’s the kind of simple, funny satire that would fit in one of Parks‘ great town hall scenes, but a few minutes later the show swings and misses when a group of women dressed as Handmaidens storm the proceedings to protest, only to be calmly told the Supreme Court Justice nomination hearing is going down next week.
Making fun of all sides of the political spectrum is important for a healthy democracy. But making a limp joke about women concerned over their reproductive health in the same scene you poke fun at a flat-Earther becomes cringy, and not a funny Office kind of cringy. Overall, the show’s politics seem earnest but thinly-drawn, feeling more like filling out a #Resistance bingo card than delivering any truly radical jabs at the absurdity of the administration that inspired the show in the first place.
A big selling point of this show is its truly stacked cast of comedy MVPs. Everyone from the top of the call sheet (Carell, Tawny Newsome) to the bottom (Jamison Webb, Chris Gethard) are seasoned pros and delightful sights, but the show remains uneven and slowly paced. It’s like watching an NBA All-Star game with all the players handcuffed to radiators.
A few break through the molasses and give inspired performances. The best may be one of the few non-comedic actors in the cast, The Americans’ Noah Emmerich as Gen. Naird’s chief rival, and head of the US Air Force, Kick Grabaston. He threads the needle of the show’s weird tone by being the most idiotic brute in every scene. He’s got the best line of the season: “Excuses are like assholes, and you are a huge excuse.”
There’s also the late, great Fred Willard, who plays Gen. Naird’s dementia-riddled father, Fred. Willard always manages to do the most with the last amount of screentime he’s given, and his God-given bluster makes for some of the show’s few belly laughs — like when he gleefully tells his son, “I crawled under the house and no one knew I was down there!” I laughed harder at this scene than at any other point in the season, which made the later news that he’d passed sting all the worse. It makes sense that Willard was the funniest person in the room until the very end. RIP to one of the all-timers.
The great supporting roles don’t make up for the show’s murky point of view, though, or its stiffness, or its lack of satirical bite. It has a little too much West Wing sincerity and not enough Parks and Rec cheekiness. Hopefully Daniels and Carell will be able to adjust the show for future seasons. With Netflix’s Pentagon-sized budget, I’m sure they’ll get the chance.
Space Force launches on Netflix May 29th.