When President Donald Trump made an independent branch of the military in 2019 dedicated solely to space operations (Space Force), many saw it as a joke and a great waste of taxpayer money. Six months from its founding, and Netflix already has a procedural sci-fi comedy about it starring Steve Carell and John Malkovich, in which they play four-star General Mark Naird (the head of Space Force) and Dr. Adrian Mallory (the head scientist of Space Force), respectively.
The cast also includes Lisa Kudlow as Naird’s incarcerated wife, Fred Willard as Naird’s father, Diana Silvers as Naird’s rebellious teenaged daughter, Erin; Ben Schwartz as Space Force Social media guy F. Tony “F*** Tony” Scarapiducci, Tawny Newsome as Space Force pilot/astronaut Angela Ali, Jimmy O. Yang as Space Force scientist Dr. Chan Kaifang, Don Lake as Space Force Brigadier General and Naird’s secretary Brad Gregory, and many, many small celebrity cameos.
“Space Force” is worth watching for its cast alone, as it is its endearing premise of what a fully operational U.S. Space Force would look like paired with the talent on set that make this show charming. While the writing is often too deadpan and predictable to get a laugh, the cast gives off enough charisma that you barely care about the unfunny jokes.
Carell and Malkovich have real chemistry as a bumbling general who takes the Space Force as seriously as he can, and a scientist who is constantly annoyed by the limitations and deadlines put on him by the military, but they learn to work together, and you get a sense that their characters develop a real friendship.
General Naird and his Space Force start the show out by being a laughing stock that is constantly bullied by the other branches of the armed forces, but are slowly taken more seriously as the Space Force begins to produce results, from getting a satellite in orbit (albeit, it was sabotaged later by a Chinese space station), to getting American “boots on the moon.”
This show works far better as a serious science fiction show than a comedy, and Carell works surprisingly well as Naird, as while he does get into bizarre situations that require bizarre solutions, he expresses sound judgement, the ability to negotiate, and to learn from his past mistakes. He could have very easily played the same one-note warmongering general character that is in every film about the military (contrasting Naird, Air Force General Kick Grabaston, played by Noah Emmerich, fits this archetype well), and his ability to grow and change make him likeable.
Carell has a recurring subplot involving his incarcerated life, who is in prison for 40 to 60 years for an undisclosed crime. They want to stay married, but agree to see other people in the time that they are apart. Carell has great chemistry with Kudlow, and while their subplot is weird it’s not necessarily funny. It’s a shame, because had Kudlow been given a larger role in this season, she could’ve been just what the show needed to spark some humour into it. The tragedy of “Space Force” is that it has a cast of very funny people who have to act out very unfunny scripts.
Newsome is pretty good in this, and her character is fun, though the show doesn’t really know what to do with her. In one episode, she becomes an unlikely mentor to Erin; in another, her and Chan become besties; and in another she’s the first black female astronaut on the moon. But she doesn’t learn or grow as a character, like many of the supporting cast, she is the exact same character from the start to end of the show. She, for the most part, is placed wherever the show needs her.
There is plenty to like in this show, from its charismatic characters, to its surprisingly solid sci-fi scenarios, to the great chemistry between Carell and Malkovich that is central to this show, but the cracks in its armor are large and noticeable.
The largest issue with this show is that it falls into a trap many Netflix shows and films have fallen into in the regard that it doesn’t have a proper finale. The final episodes of the show build up an impending conflict with the Chinese space exploration efforts, and in its final episode, it hits critical mass, when the safety of both the American and Chinese forces are jeopardized, And the show builds it in a way where you think Naird is going to use his conflict resolution skills we’ve seen him improve upon throughout the season to get both space forces out of this seemingly-impossible situation in a satisfying conclusion to Season 1.
Then, just as the series’ climax is supposed to happen, the show leaves viewers on pause, it’s main conflict unresolved for Season 2. While it technically counts as a cliffhanger, it comes before any major arcs with those involved are resolved, making the season feel incomplete rather than a natural, earned conclusion.
This, paired with its unfunny writing and shallow character development, keep the show from being anything other than painfully average, despite its fun concept.
“Space Force” is caught between being a procedural science fiction show and a comedy, and it ends up not fully being either. While what sci-fi the show shows us and takes seriously is pretty solid, it constantly has to take a back seat to flat, character shenanigans that eclipse the overall mission of the Space Force.
Space Force colonizes the moon in this show, and it treats it like another day at the office. It seems like there was an attempt to build this up, given the missions the show covers prior to this, but it wasn’t fleshed out enough for viewers to care, mainly because the show’s characters only mention the moon mission as an immediate thing in the episode it happens. Sure, they do mention how the president wants “boots on the moon” by 2024, but it’s treated either as a joke or an impossible task. This mission should have been looming over them the entire season, but instead, it’s like a pesky fly that buzzes in their ear every now and again. And so when they accomplish their impossible goal, it has nowhere near the impact it should.
You can have a sci-fi show with both elements of humour and serious drama. But the two need to be balanced, and “Space Force,” leans way too hard on its unfunny humour.
Steve Carell is this show’s co-creator and executive producer, and it definitely feels like a project where its lead had too much control, as it seems more concerned with giving Carell as much screen time as it can (even at the detriment of the show’s larger narrative) and giving his friends cameo appearances than it is with telling a good story and delivering effective jokes.
Still, what the show has going for it — charisma, a cool concept, and a great cast — keep the show above water. But it is far from reaching its full potential.
“Space Force” Season 1 gets a 6.5/10