Review By: Jonathan W. Hickman
The first season of “Space Force” plays out like one extended dad joke. The innocuous laughs do come, as a likable Steve Carell gets reliable support from a talented, varied cast that prominently features the ever-entertaining John Malkovich.
In this Netflix series, Carell is General Mark R. Naird, a decorated military pilot who is elevated to four-star general status to run the new armed forces branch, the Space Force. It wasn’t his first choice, but when duty calls, the dedicated Naird answers.
Without missing a beat, Naird moves his wife, Maggie (Lisa Kudrow), and his teen daughter, Erin (Diana Silvers), to a remote base in Colorado. To successfully build this new military arm, Naird is surrounded by scientists. Dr. Adrian Mallory (Malkovich) is his lead advisor. The two men are from two different backgrounds but, over time, develop begrudging mutual respect.
At one point, Naird suggests that when the Air Force is stumped, they always drop a bomb. Mallory instantly dismisses this idea, and Naird doesn’t push it; he folds like his suggestion was a joke. The potential on-going conflict between the soldier and the scientist never really expands beyond a few spats. Malkovich is perfectly cast and, if this show is to continue, the creators should expand his role.
Instead of providing an edgy, but comical, platform for an intelligent debate surrounding the direction of colonizing the moon and space in general, “Space Force” is about delivering broad comedy. The gags rarely concern any realistic space travel or scientific subject matter. Instead, we get the basest and most absurd comic science fiction concepts. The real Space Force has nothing to worry about.
I do not doubt that a show about space travel can be funny. And HBO’s completely ridiculous “Avenue 5” is a solid example of funny science fiction in the mold of the British sitcom “Red Dwarf.” In contrast, “Space Force” is set in a near-future period, and instead of being satirical, it often devolves into parody.
In case you missed it, there is a United States Space Force (the “USSF”) established in December of last year. Its mission includes “maturing the military doctrine for space power, and organizing space forces to present to our Combatant Commands.” Just a cursory review of the USSF website provides a clear idea of the branch’s purpose. There’s plenty there that could offer meaningful laughs.
In the first place, the whole idea of space exploration seems insane. However, going to the moon was one of the single greatest achievements in humankind’s history. It was one of the most audacious initiatives ever successfully mounted. Rather than attempting to focus on the realities and amazing bravery associated space exploration, “Space Force” makes little effort to build on what tangibly exists. There are plenty of jokes that could be made about a space program.
But in this series, one episode, for example, features a “war game” between the Space Force and the Air Force. The combatants use bb-guns and tape balloons to their uniforms. Also, the soldiers wear crude, powered, exoskeletons on their legs. At best, this episode is mildly humorous. But since so much in this show has no practical connection to what I see is going on with the real USSF, I was uniformly frustrated.
“Space Force” uses the light laugh, that many had when President Trump announced the creation of the branch, to mount an ordinary workplace comedy. And to that extent, it’s sort of like “The Office” meets “Arrested Development.” Naird’s relationship with his co-workers does provide some light humor, but it’s his struggles in his marriage that offer the most heartfelt moments.
Kudrow is terrific playing Maggie. And Carell is good playing Naird as a strait-laced military man, who rigidly adheres to his principles even when they make him utterly depressed. After a long day on the job, he's a good dad, who makes time to help his daughter with her math homework.
Naird’s father, Fred, is played by the late Fred Willard. Fred is funny and just a bit touching, as he exhibits memory problems, but always seems to offer some thoughtful comment. When the show focuses on these familiar aspects, it works, primarily because the events bear some semblance to the real world.
“Space Force” is ultimately a foolish parody elevated by a talented comedic acting team.
A RottenTomatoes.com Tomatometer-approved critic, Jonathan W. Hickman is also an entertainment lawyer, college professor, novelist, and filmmaker. He’s a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle, The Southeastern Film Critics Association, and the Georgia Film Critics Association. For more information about Jonathan visit: FilmProductionLaw.com or DailyFIlmFix.com