By Sarah Osman
Maybe Space Force will figure out what kind of comedy it is and launch into a rejuvenated second season turn. Though that assumes it will get a second season.
Thanks to streaming services, NBC’s The Office has thrived and is now hailed as one of the best sitcoms ever made. Ironically, its first season wasn’t that well received — Americans did not know how to handle the abrasive Michael Scott (Steve Carrell) or the mockumentary format (which is now common among many TV shows, including ABC’s juggernaut Modern Family). As the seasons went on, Michael Scott was softened and the humor dipped into sentimentality: the show became not only hilarious but full of heart. This transformation can be credited to the work of Greg Daniels, who not only helped create The Office, but also helmed the ever popular Parks and Recreation and created some of the strongest episodes of The Simpsons.
15 years after that the first episode of The Office debuted, Daniels and Carrell have reunited for a new sitcom on Netflix: Space Force. If one is expecting another exciting version of The Office or another hit like Parks and Recreation, they will look in vain. Space Force is decidedly dull, to the point that humor has been transported elsewhere.
The series follows Mark Naird (Steve Carrell), a four-star general tasked with creating a new U.S. military branch: Space Force. He’s an ignorant jerk who doesn’t listen to anyone around him — though it is not as if they know what he is up to. It’s left dangerously unclear: are we supposed to laugh every time he dismisses the scientists around him? Or cry that he acts with malignant ignorance of our current president? How was Naird put into a position of authority in the first place? But his over-the-top arrogance (political satire?) is just one part of the show’s problem.
He also has a wife, Maggie (Lisa Kudrow), who is in jail, and a teenage daughter (Diana Silvers) who is dating his Russian nemesis. The rest of the pilot episode introduces a slew of new characters, to the point that it’s difficult to keep track of who is who. A couple of key players: Ben Schwartz as a social media expert, Jimmy O. Yang as an Asian scientist (that’s his key feature), and John Malkovich as the Space Force’s key scientist. Other comedians pop up among the force’s chiefs of staff, including Patrick Warburton and Jane Lynch. It’s an impressive cast — but none of them re very funny. Skilled comic actors can only do so much with writing this bland.
Just as troubling as the dialogue is that Space Force doesn’t seem to know why it’s here — what’s the show’s message? It’s as though Daniels couldn’t decide if he wanted to create a political lampoon, a conventional sitcom, or a CGI-driven space adventure. So he just tossed all the ingredients into outer space and hoped that they would cohere. They don’t. The series does not skimp on the special effects — much of the second episode focuses on a “chimpostranaut” floating around in a CGI-created galaxy. But the fancy visuals don’t serve the show the same way they do HBO’s much smarter space comedy, Avenue 5. It could be that Space Force wants to be an outer space version of HBO’s Veep – a biting satire about D.C. politics. But where’s the relevant (and sometimes prescient) snark? Veep wasn’t afraid to make a statement about the government’s slide into inanity. Space Force doesn’t have anything to offer other than to keep saying “Isn’t this absurd? Isn’t this crazy?” But the show is so far away from everyday reality it is difficult to figure out what is supposed to be absurd or funny. The fact that Space Force has been made to stuff more money into Netflix’s pockets?
To be fair, the second half of the season humanizes Naird a bit and attempts to add in some moments of recognizable human interaction. But these band aids are too little too late. Maybe Space Force will figure out what kind of comedy it is and launch into a rejuvenated second season turn. Though that assumes it will get a second season. Right now, Carell and company are drifting off into a Black hole.
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer living in Los Angeles. She has written for Young Hollywood and High Voltage Magazine. She will be featured in the upcoming anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences under the Trump Era.