In the first episode of Space Force, Netflix’s workplace comedy set in the newest branch of the U.S. military, General Mark Naird (Steve Carell, who co-created the show with The Office showrunner Greg Daniels) ignores the warnings of the eggheads and proceeds with the launch of multinational defense satellite “Epsilon 6” despite the threat of poor weather. It isn’t mere impulsiveness that drives his decision, but political pressure. A Congressional delegation of “Shugler, Pitosi, and the angry young Congresswoman” (played by an actor whose hair and makeup has been styled like U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) has come to Space Force’s Colorado base to observe the launch. The general is afraid they’ll cut his funding if he doesn’t give them a good show.
Daniels, Carell, and Co. couldn’t have predicted their new series would drop during the brief interval between the initial launch attempt for the first crewed flight of the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule on Wednesday and the rescheduled date (tomorrow), after the launch was postponed due to bad weather. But this odd confluence of events illustrates the difficulty, and perhaps impossibility, of the assignment the Space Force team has given themselves: How to make their lampoon of the militarization of spaceflight feel more wacky and outlandish than real life?
Even absent that coincidence, Space Force’s zigzagging tones—at least in the four episodes I’ve previewed—would make it frustrating to watch. Unwilling to commit to being a truly lacerating satire of military power like Dr. Strangelove or In the Loop, but also lacking the warmth and depth of characterization that made The Office such a rewarding sitcom, the show feels like it’s gone through years of flight readiness reviews and emerged as bland and unmemorable as possible.
Comic heavyweights are here in force but rarely given the chance to shine. Fred Willard, who passed away at the age of 86 earlier this month, has a few scenes as Naird’s elderly father, and he’s so visibly unwell that it hurts to see him, especially knowing this marks one of his final screen appearances. Jane Lynch and Patrick Warburton, in small recurring roles as two of the Joint Chiefs, are weirdly subdued, as though the saltier material their presence might suggest had been scrubbed from the show, while leaving the F-bombs intact. But if the comparitively family-friendly spectacle of watching Carell ward off a panic attack by slipping into his office to lip-sync and dance his way through the Beach Boys yacht-rock landmark “Kokomo” sounds hysterical to you, by all means, make sure your Neflix dues are paid up.
The current President’s name is never spoken in Space Force, but we see the heads of the service branches recoiling from unexpected policy announcements delivered via Tweet, and Yuri, the Russian observer on the base (handsome Alex Sparrow), is shown to have a curious degree of influence over the Commander-in-Chief. In the third episode, Naird, summoned before a House committee to defend his massive budget request, encounters an ancient lawmaker from Oklahoma who keeps insisting the Earth is flat.
That’s as sharp as the show’s fangs get. It spends most of its time trying to wring laughs from much older comic notions, like the unfathomable cost of military hardware, the assumption that generals will typically favor violent solutions to problems, and the idea — which also animated The Office — that the person in charge will seldom be the wisest, most qualified, or most temperamentally suited to the responsibilities of command. There also are comparatively fresh comic tropes that already feel ancient, like the idea that Space Force employs someone (Ben Schwarz) to manage its Twitter presence, and that that person is even more of an airhead than Carell’s buffoonish general.
These hoary ideas pay off more generously than the fresher ones, not because they’re funnier than the more topical stuff (they’re not), but because the actors seem more comfortable expressing them. John Malkovich’s character, a civilian scientist who nevertheless seems to have a substantial degree of authority in Space Force, describes the $6 billion cost of a spacecraft as “the entire lifetime earnings of 3,000 people,” while a “satellite-killer-killer” missile that explodes on the launchpad costs “as much as four new middle schools.” He at least behaves in a consistent way from episode to episode. Other recurring characters, like Jimmy O. Yang’s Dr. Chan and Tawny Newsome’s Angela Ali—a helicopter pilot with designs on becoming an astronaut—are both fleshed out in promising ways after a few episodes.
The strangest thing about Space Force is that despite Carell’s substantial involvement both in front of and behind the camera, it doesn’t seem to have figured out who his character is. Is General Naird a fool whose primary motivation in any scenario is to keep his ignorance hidden and whose successes are purely the result of dumb luck? Is he a proud combat veteran who hoped to be placed in charge of the Air Force but was disappointed to be given command of what he sees as its inferior, more exploration-driven spinoff? Is he a racist, as is suggested and then quickly dismissed in the first episode when he seems suspicious of Dr. Chan’s recommendation that he delay the Epsilon 6 launch? The answer to all these questions depends on which epsiode you happen to be watching, which makes it very difficult to get a handle on a character whose growth and success the show wants us to root for even as it mocks him relentlessly.
All ten episodes of Space Force are streaming on Netflix starting today.