Space Force

Ben Schwartz and Steve Carell in 'Space Force'.
Ben Schwartz and Steve Carell in 'Space Force'.
Photo: Aaron Epstein/Netflix

OUR RATING

3/5 Stars

WHAT IT'S ABOUT:

General Mark Naird is a decorated air force officer who suddenly finds himself heading up the much ridiculed Space Force project that is to establish a United States military presence on the moon. At the same time, a team of top US scientists, led by the brilliant but anarchic Dr Adrian Mallory, use the opportunity of returning to the moon to turn military excess into a new frontier of scientific study. Will Naird and Mallory find enough common ground to make it work or will they and their team of outcast military rookies and genius scientists bungle the mission before it even gets off the ground?

WHAT WE THOUGHT:

The long-awaited reunion of Steve Carell and his old boss and creator of the American version of The Office, Greg Daniels, may be another half-hour TV comedy but it is a rather different beast from the humble but ludicrously successful Network sitcom on which they made their names. But then, it would have to be, wouldn't it?

Since Carell left The Office at the end of its seventh season in 2011 (the series would, of course, continue for two more less successful seasons without Michael Scott), the face of television has radically changed in everything from the way it is watched to the very idea of what a TV series is. The "Netflix model" has TV shows skipping pilot episodes and going straight to series with the vast majority dropping all their episodes at once rather than on the once traditional week-by-week schedule.

And, while there are still Network sitcoms and procedurals that keep the old format alive, the attention-grabbing shows found on streaming platforms and premium cable networks resemble moderate-to-high-budget films that have been sliced into hour-long or thirty-minute-long pieces rather than the episodic storytelling that was once the calling card of television. It's not for nothing, after all, that Game of Thrones began its epic, medium-redefining run in the same year that The Office started to wind down.

I say all this because while the subject matter of Space Force could hardly be more different from The Office, it is this new format that provides the biggest challenge in Carell and Daniels recapturing that old magic. Daniels certainly seems keen on the challenge, though, as he jumps head-first into this new age of TV with two premium comedy series on two competing streaming services (the other being Upload on Amazon Prime) arriving a mere month apart. 

As it turns out, like Upload, Space Force has been rather polarising. Few people absolutely love it or absolutely detest it, but reactions have ranged from abject disappointment to a fairly enthusiastic embracing of the show. There have already been "think pieces" written about why this has proven to be the case but, as a serious fan of Greg Daniels' work on both The Office and Parks and Recreation, I can pretty safely say that the reason is actually fairly simple: this is the first season of a Greg Daniels show.

The Office and, even more especially, Parks and Recreation had really rocky first seasons where it was clear that Daniels (and co-creator, Mike Schur, for Parks and Rec) was still very much finding his footing and trying to work out exactly what he wanted these shows to be. These initial seasons were basically trial runs that were both short (six twenty-minute episodes each) and little-seen and allowed both series to hit the ground running when they returned for their sophomore years. With that newfound confidence, both shows quickly found their groove and never really looked back for the rest of their lengthy runs.

The good news is that Space Force has a much more successful first season than either of those shows. It's breezily enjoyable, well-put-together fare that has its share of laughs, big dollops of heart, and a killer cast doing fine work as an already likeable but motley group of misfits. Frankly, it's worth the price of admission just to watch Steve Carell and John Malkovich bounce off one another as the bickering Odd Couple you never knew you needed. It is still; however, a show trying to find its feet in many other respects – and this time, unfortunately, it has to do so without the benefit that The Office and Parks and Rec had of being allowed to develop quietly and organically out of the spotlight.

It is, after all, a show that is built around lampooning something that came from the mind of one Donald Trump. An easy target, sure, but the past four years under this American president have been so thoroughly deranged that satirising anything to come from it has become something of a challenge. Satire, after all, involves stretching and distorting real events in order to comment on them and the "real world" is so unreal that if it were fiction, it would stretch anyone's suspension of disbelief well beyond breaking point. And, worst of all for a comedy, there is nothing remotely funny about what is going on in the United States right now.

With the state of affairs being what they are, then, it's not massively surprising that Space Force's detractors have been so put off by how bloodless and sanitised it is as a satire. And they're not wrong: the more satirical aspects of the show do indeed have all the grit and incisiveness of a teddy bear. It doesn't even have the vitriol and ingenious profanity of something like Veep, which itself had to become broader and less "realistic" just to keep up with real-world events but somehow never lost its edge.

Greg Daniels and Steve Carell clearly seem to know this because however much the show struggles with its tone in its first season, Space Force is clearly a comedy series meant to comfort not disturb. As Daniels and Carell admit, it takes a number of its cues from Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, Dr Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, but they also obviously realise that the Space Force project, whatever you may think of it, is no nuclear holocaust.

So, yes, the none too subtle swipes at Donald Trump are broad and easy, and its running theme of science being under attack by the idiots who run things is tackled with only slightly more nuance, but when you take the show as a comforting bit of escapism rather than yet another reminder of the world going to hell in a handcart, such problems don't just go away but actually become something of a boon.

Still, this doesn't entirely obscure the fact that the show can't quite seem to make up its mind whether it wants to be a purely goofy comedy, a more serious and sincere comedy-drama or a broad satire. Presumably, it wants to be all three, but Carell and Daniels haven't quite struck that balance just yet. I can all but guarantee that the obvious generosity of spirit and warmth of both creators of Space Force (the show, not the real thing, of course) will win out in the end and, like The Office, will find its equilibrium by concentrating on making you love the characters and have you laughing with them as much as at them. It's just not quite there yet.

It will also hopefully be more consistently funny on the second go round. The show is certainly not bereft of fine comic moments in its first season – both in terms of character comedy and, as in the second episode, some wonderfully mad set pieces – but it doesn't have anywhere near the hit rate of the Office at its peak with a good number of jokes falling surprisingly flat considering the talented cast of comedic actors.

The first episode, in particular, feels like its constantly hitting its comic notes just a couple of seconds behind the beat. Mind you, it's not much less funny than other "premium" comedy series like Silicon Valley or Weeds, but there's more than enough of Office in Space Force to suggest that it absolutely wants to deliver more and bigger laughs than these sorts of shows typically do. For all of its expensive Netflix sheen, there's an old fashioned (but good) network TV comedy buried in Space Force that's just bursting to get out.   

And, though I have little problem recommending this immensely likeable show as is, once it does so, it will finally be on its way to truly becoming something special. 

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE:

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