Space Force Tells a Terrible Joke About America
If there were a way to watch Netflix’s new series Space Force without any of the dialogue, you might mistake it for a drama from happier times. The show’s score, which pops up intermittently in wafts of softly rousing strings and trumpets, seems to consciously evoke The West Wing; in one episode, it crescendos emphatically while a troupe of astronauts marches out from an aircraft hangar toward a shining gold horizon. The directors include significant names from the film world: Dee Rees (Mudbound) and Paul King (Paddington). Space Force’s set alone, which replicates a boondoggle of a U.S. military base in Colorado, is so sprawling and detailed and shiny that it feels like it should belong to a James Cameron movie, not a Greg Daniels workplace comedy. At a time when entertainment has adjusted to lo-fi spectacle—the Zoom sketch-comedy show, the TikTok satire, the art of performative bookshelving—the obvious expense of Space Force almost feels unseemly, even without the reported $10 million Steve Carell was paid to star in it.
But then there’s the show itself, which is so strange and ill-conceived and ill-timed that not even Carell’s avuncular bonhomie can save it. For all its cinematic trappings, Space Force is a series with a single joke running through it, and that joke is American idiocy. The show was supposedly dreamed up a few years ago when President Donald Trump announced the founding of a sixth, extraterrestrial branch of the armed forces, a project so absurd that most people just carried on living their lives without really processing that it was real—barring occasional reminders in the form of Star Trek badges and Scientology-vague recruiting ads. A grandiose, totally unnecessary, obscenely expensive militaristic monument to one man’s porcelain-dainty ego! What could be funnier? Right?
Two years later, though, amid the wreckage of a bungled pandemic response that in three months has cost America 100,000 lives and 40 million jobs, it’s harder to laugh at what Space Force is offering: baffling tonal dissonance, flimsy characters, and an unresolved subplot that, by the end of the 10th episode, was the only thing I still had half an interest in. Daniels is famous for creating TV shows with dubious first seasons that get better significantly over time; watch The Office or Parks and Recreation on Netflix to see series consciously tweak themselves and their protagonists to make them more appealing. But with Space Force, there’s not much imaginable that could make the show pleasurable to watch (excepting maybe an election). The joke isn’t on us; it is us. Pointless wars, corporate grift, the sassiness of fast-food brands on Twitter—the awful and rotten aspects of modern life are served up here as soggy punch lines, not caustic enough to really burn as black humor, and not winsome enough to simply enjoy.
In the first episode, Mark Naird (Carell) is a starchy general receiving his fourth star and hoping to be promoted to the head of the Air Force, when he’s tasked instead to lead the new Space Force by an erratic, unnamed POTUS with an itchy Twitter finger. (“Boots on the moon by 2024” is the founding mission, although the president accidentally mistypes it as “boobs.”) Naird, who remakes his bed at night when he gets up to use the bathroom and marches rather than walks, is dismayed by the new gig, but not nearly as much as his family is. A year later, he’s wrangling the launch of a $6 billion rocket at his new top-secret base, while his wife, Maggie (Lisa Kudrow, shamefully neglected), is serving a 40-year prison sentence for a crime that goes unspecified, and his teenage daughter, Erin (Diana Silvers of Booksmart), is isolated and resentful.
Space Force’s insistent but half-drawn focus on Naird’s family is odd, because it seems to imply dramatic ambitions, or even a kind of sentimentality, that aren’t otherwise remotely realized. There’s no room for that kind of character work and emotional commitment in a comedy so otherwise dedicated to the inanity of American power. The jokes come thick and fast and feeble: Bombing things is the default answer to diplomatic snafus; the “U.S. boots” on the moon are made in Mexico; ships are equipped with purely decorative assault rifles so that manufacturers can claim to have, as one character puts it, “the official Space Force gun for committing mass shootings on the moon.” By order of the White House, one rocket is sent into orbit with a dog and a chimp on board, for the purpose of creating cutesy viral videos. The president is in the pocket of the Russians. The Appropriations Committee balks at funding medical research on rats to create new antibiotics, but doles out the cash whenever anyone mentions two simple words: “American defense.”
The current state of the real-world culture war is summarized in the ongoing conflict between two characters: Carell’s Naird and John Malkovich’s Dr. Adrian Mallory, the Space Force’s head scientist and a debonair, knit-tie-wearing professorial type who’s the intellectual yin to Naird’s impulsive, reactive yang. (“All right, so we’re going into battle and you’re dressed like Annie Hall,” Naird sneers as he and Mallory prepare for a loaded, highly competitive game of Space Flag that will test suits designed by competing defense contractors.) Malkovich, who radiates disdain throughout, is the best reason to watch Space Force, and his character’s evolving relationship with Naird is the closest thing the show has to an arc. Otherwise, every bold name on the list of supporting cast members feels wasted: Noah Emmerich as the bullying, libidinous head of the Air Force, Fred Willard (in his final role) as Naird’s deteriorating father, Jane Lynch as the smart-mouthed head of the Navy, Kaitlin Olson as a tech titan whose empire is built on scams and rocket fuel the color of rosé.
Maybe, in a different moment, the show’s humor might have landed better, or at least less jarringly. It wouldn’t have made Space Force a fully conceived show, or an insightful one, but Carell’s buffoonish likability might have won over some fans. As it is, a series so defined by poking fun at a uniquely American strain of stupidity is hard to sit through in this particular moment. The ongoing battle between science and bombast is too loaded; the cost of putting inexperienced, unvetted incompetents in positions where lives are at stake is too acute. I couldn’t laugh when a wide-eyed young recruit tells Erin he’s been reading to impress her, only to reel off a list of conspiracy theories about Jeffrey Epstein and the Queen of England that he gleaned from the internet. Nor could I remotely appreciate a series that continually winks at Maggie’s glaring whiteness in prison. In the real world, idiocy is unquestionably winning right now. There’s no solace to be found in a comedy about exactly that.