Created by Greg Daniels and Steve Carell
Starring Steve Carell, John Malkovich, Lisa Kudrow
A few days ago, The Atlantic published an insightful piece on why some people collaborate with an obviously destructive regime while others don’t. One of the reasons it cites for why people willingly turn a blind eye is the rationale that “We can use this moment to achieve great things.” In other words, if you’re amenable to swallowing a few turds, you can regurgitate something for the greater good.
That seems to be the thinking of Steve Carell’s General Mark Naird when we meet him for the first time in Greg Daniels’ 10-episode Netflix satire/parody/workplace comedy/who-knows-what-it-is Space Force. The premise of the comedy stems from a March 2018 speech by Donald Trump, in which his big, uh, brain mandated the creation of another branch of the Armed Forces dedicated solely to the domination of outer space. He dubbed this sixth branch “Space Force”, and by December 2019 his generals had indeed inaugurated an independent entity that promised American victory in the space race.
Naird is dropped into this real-life SNL comedy sketch, with Carell’s hangdog features sagging even more when he is told that he is not commandeering the Air Force from his nemesis, supposed-to-be-retiring General Kick Grabaston (Noah Emmerich). In fact, he is being shipped out of Washington DC to start building up this nothing branch in the nowhere stretches of Colorado, much to the consternation of his teenage daughter Erin (Ma’s Diana Silvers) and the teary breakdown of his wife Maggie (Lisa Kudrow, who can elicit laughs just by switching her hairstyle from poufed-up Washington wife to jailbird cornrows).
Sorry for the spoiler: Yes, it is soon revealed in the pilot episode that a year into Naird’s assignment, Maggie has been sentenced and thrown in jail for charges that are never fully explained, much less explored. This sums up the essential drawback with Space Force: It really can’t decide what it wants to be, so it tries on different disguises and plot devices then throws them away once it loses interest in them.
Erin is dating a hunky Russian spaceman (Alex Sparrow) who takes out a notepad to attentively jot down any family detail she might spill; is Space Force pointed political commentary? The relationship ultimately goes nowhere, so who knows?
Another episode deals with Naird’s bumbling efforts to ferret out a possible mole within his organization; is it a workplace comedy satirizing the ineptitude of the Trump administration?
The episode’s slapdash, wholly unsatisfying resolution might make you wonder if it is instead a satire on the ineptitude of the writers’ room.
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Daniels doesn’t seem to be interested in excavating the incompetence of the Trump era because, as a veteran of The Office, he instinctively knows that there is no one-upping the idiocy of Trump, who claimed to be “inspecting” his White House bunker while cowering there during recent demonstrations. If you’re aiming for parody, there is no winning over Trump, who is a parody of a president. And so Daniels invests in the workplace shenanigans by casting John Malkovich as Naird’s tetchy science advisor, Dr. Adrian Mallory. It’s a double-edged strategy: Malkovich is pleasurably deadpan and a joy to watch, but Carell seems to be popping a vein in his forehead trying not to get their scenes together stolen from him.
Perhaps this central workplace relationship would have worked better if Carell and his fellow Office alumnus Daniels had conceded that Mark Naird needed to be more of a Michael Scott. Instead, Carell gives him shadings: He is simply a good man trying his best. Unfortunately, the impulse toward wacky comedy often works against Carell’s efforts. It’s not uncommon to see Naird swing from one inexplicable impulse to another within the space of one episode. He is a dutiful father smart enough to tutor his daughter in high school trigonometry, but he insists on using a chimpanzee to repair a satellite’s broken solar panels. He humiliates Mallory with an inadvertently public outing of Mallory’s sexuality, but also tells Mallory he’s so lucky to have him for clothes shopping. As Jason Bateman so aptly demonstrates in Arrested Development, you can’t be the straight man and also participate in the zaniness that surrounds you. Naird may be trying his best, but Space Force is neither Carell nor Daniels’ best.
Space Force is currently streaming on Netflix
Photos by Netflix