Space Force review: New Greg Daniels comedy is one small misstep for Steve Carell, one giant flop for Netflix

In The Office, characters that seemed one-note became multi-faceted when paired together. The same cannot be said of Space Force.

Prahlad Srihari May 29, 2020 08:00:33 IST
Space Force review: New Greg Daniels comedy is one small misstep for Steve Carell, one giant flop for Netflix

Language: English

How do you keep an audience laughing when their reality keeps getting stranger — and funnier — than fiction? Not George Carlin, not Monty Python, and not even Charlie Chaplin can compete with a man who suggests the drinking of disinfectant to cure a deadly virus, thinks the world needs global warming because it is freezing in New York, and oh-so-casually wishes he could date his daughter. Trump and his laughable administration have sure been an inexhaustible source of comedy. It is now hard to find anything more hilarious and absurd than the daily news. Greg Daniels and Steve Carell seem to think otherwise.

Space Force review New Greg Daniels comedy is one small misstep for Steve Carell one giant flop for Netflix

A still from Space Force

Reuniting seven years after The Office (US) concluded, its writer and star try to recapture the same comedic alchemy in their Netflix series, Space Force. Carell leads a new workplace, a galaxy far, far away from the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin. He is no more Michael Scott, the well-meaning buffoon; he is Mark R Naird, a decorated general in charge of the newly formed sixth branch of the US military-industrial complex: the Space Force, inspired by Donald Trump's cosmic military agency of the same name.

The chief item on their agenda is to put "boots on the moon": install American forces on the lunar surface, and establish the first habitable settlement before the rest of the world (read: China). The show attempts to mine humour from the unforeseeable space misadventures and the unmanageable interpersonal conflicts that undermine the credibility of the Space Force, and the US efforts to win the space race. But Space Force shoots for the moon, runs out of fuel quite early, and self-destructs among situations that cannot possibly eclipse the hilarity of reality.

From the get-go, Space Force's "boots on the moon" plan runs into a variety of setbacks, from the anticipated (defending its sky-high budget amid failed launches and avoiding diplomatic conflicts with competing nations) to the absurd (guiding a "chimpstronaut" to repair a satellite and testing space suits with a BB gun combat training exercise). Both the serious and silly co-exist in a show that cannot decide if it wants to be a clever satire (like a modern-day Dr. Strangelove) or an absurdist spoof (akin to Angie Tribeca).

It even veers way off course with subplots involving Naird, the absentee dad, and Naird, the sexually repressed general, whose wife is in a maximum security prison. Diana Silvers plays his daughter Erin, a teenager dealing with angst and resentment after being forced to move from her sweet life in DC to a middle-of-nowhere town in Colorado. Lisa Kudrow is his wife Maggie, who has got her own "Orange is the New Black" thing going on in prison.

Assisting Carell's General Naird through Space Force's many setbacks is John Malkovich's Dr. Adrian Mallory, who acts as the sole voice of reason. The chief scientist on the project, Mallory believes international collaboration, not competition, should drive mankind on its journey to colonise the next frontier. Only, the military men and office-bearers higher up the chain-of-command only understand war, the one true American ideology, not science. This leads to some conflict between Mallory and Naird initially, before the latter proves himself to be more than just a 'yes man,' and they begin to find some middle ground.

Space Force review New Greg Daniels comedy is one small misstep for Steve Carell one giant flop for Netflix

John Malkovich in a still from Space Force

Interestingly, Trump is neither mentioned by name nor gets smacked with the comedy hit job you might expect. But when characters make passing references to his tweeting habits or the slur he uses for "countries like India," we know exactly which world leader they are referring to. In another wink to the Trump presidency, a Russian spy roams around the Space Force offices, and even dates Naird's daughter to get close to him. There is also the eager-to-please first lady whose space suit designs are a veritable disaster and the butt of jokes. Some of the allusions are less ambiguous: In a congressional hearing over Space Force's budget, we meet an AOC-type congresswoman named Anabela Ysidro-Campos, while Kaitlin Olson's Silicon Valley whiz is a clear stand-in for disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes.

In The Office, characters that seemed one-note became multi-faceted when paired together. The same cannot be said of Space Force.

Ben Schwartz (Parks and Recreation), Tawny Newsome (Brockmire), Jimmy O Yang (Silicon Valley), and the legendary Fred Willard (in possibly his last role) make up a cast of comedians not all cut from the same cloth. So, on paper, they should make for a winning combination of comedic talents. But they cannot quite complement their different styles seamlessly like The Office did in its depiction of a dysfunctional workplace.

Space Force review New Greg Daniels comedy is one small misstep for Steve Carell one giant flop for Netflix

Steve Carell and John Malkovich in a still from Space Force

For example, Schwartz as Naird's PR manager "Fuck Tony" Scarapiducci may seem like an extension of  Jean-Ralphio Saperstein from Parks and Recreation but this time, his clueless hijinks get grating quite soon. So some episodes are unfunny in long patches, relying on Carell and Malkovich to dig them out of a hole. It feels like the cast keeps running into each other for 10 episodes in search of laughs that do not always come. Moreover, there is no laugh track here to signal us on how to react, which usually helps mask poor writing.

The hope lies in a trend among Greg Daniels' shows. The Office and Parks and Recreation also suffered from disappointing debut seasons before going on to become beloved TV comedies. So let us look at the first season of Space Force too as a test run before Daniels and Carell can assert better control over its setup, tone and characters — i.e. if Netflix does not cancel the show. If it does, Space Force will just be another throwaway piece of cultural ephemera, forgotten in the endless gaffes and episodes of Trump's Theatre of the Absurd.

Space Force is now streaming on Netflix.

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