For All Mankind Deserves to Be the Biggest Sci-Fi Show on TV

Apple's underrated alternate history series, For All Mankind, keeps getting better.

For All Mankind
Photo: Apple TV+

Not so long back, I had no idea what For All Mankind was really about. I’d heard that Star Trek veteran and Battlestar Galactica and Outlander creator Ronald D. Moore had co-created a new show that was streaming on Apple TV+, but since I didn’t have the service, it wasn’t in my orbit. That all changed this year when I got access to Apple TV+ and decided to catch up on their big offerings. 

What’s been clear from my experience with the streamer thus far is that Apple doesn’t just heavily invest in “content”. They don’t seem to greenlight a series, briefly check some numbers from an algorithm, then cancel it (cough Netflix). They don’t give creators the chance to make something fascinating and then bury it somewhere under a terrible interface (cough Prime). And they don’t typically delete an entire series as a tax write-off (this cough really is getting worse I should probably see a doctor). 

Indeed, For All Mankind, the show I’ll chat more about here, is all set to release a fourth season on Apple TV+ soon. Not bad for a pricey series that clearly doesn’t have a sizable viewership to speak of.

I started my Apple TV+ journey with For All Mankind as I consider myself a Moorehead. That is, I’ve been deeply Moorepilled in the past, binge-watching his reimagined version of BSG more than once, and sticking with Outlander until its seasons stretch to an eye-watering length, so his latest series seemed as good a place to start as any.

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The show itself is a weird sell. Technically science fiction, but certainly more science fiction than Outlander, which is also technically science fiction, the Carl Sagan-inspired For All Mankind explores an alternate history where the Soviet Union succeeded at accomplishing the first crewed Moon landing ahead of the United States. The U.S. is left hurting from the humiliation; pledging to go higher, further, faster. The global space race kicks up a considerable amount of notches, even as relations between the good ol’ U S of A and the Russians deteriorate into a different, yet familiar, cold war. In the current political climate, these tensions don’t feel dated.

Rest assured, there is a decent amount of space action in For All Mankind, but the focus is always on the characters, as it should be. We can see astronauts bouncing around on the surface of the moon or cramped together in a ship staring at the stars through a little window until the cows come home, but unless we understand what it means for them to be there, or what it means for their families to be without them, the space stuff wouldn’t really have any impact. 

Mind you, these astronauts aren’t doing anything headline-grabbing or outlandish. They’re not meeting aliens or going through some kind of Kubrickian star gate. These folks are simply trying not to drop a hammer so they don’t waste vital energy picking it up in a cumbersome suit. They’re on the Moon watching the same episode of the The Bob Newhart Show over and over again because it’s the mid-1970s and they have no choice – Apple TV+ hasn’t been invented yet.

If that sounds like a bit too much of a slow burn, the show is immediately ready to address it. Each season jumps forward in time by around a decade, so we’re never as stuck in a bad situation as the main characters are, and new actors often join the ensemble. Season four will see Daniel Stern and Toby Kebbell added to the cast, which originally sets out with the likes of DC’s Rick Flagg Joel Kinnaman, Sarah Jones (Alcatraz), Michael Dorman (One Piece), and Shantel VanSanten (The Boys). 

Kinnaman is astronaut Ed Baldwin, who regrets fighting his instinct to land on the moon ahead of the Soviets, and will later face a kind of “monkey’s paw” reckoning when he gets dog sick of the rock. VanSanten is his anxious wife Karen, left alone for long periods of time while Ed chases his space dreams; for all intents and purposes a single mom with basic human needs that go unrelieved. Jones, meanwhile, is a blond-haired, blue-eyed former pilot quickly trained up as an astronaut after the Soviets put a first woman on the moon, while her husband Gordo (Dorman), already a celebrated astronaut, has to learn to support her dreams, even as she grabs more of the limelight and has less time for him.

There are tons of other fascinating characters in For All Mankind, both at NASA and elsewhere, and the writers and actors painstakingly add depth to them as each season progresses. People we initially can’t stand slowly become our favorites. People we once loved acquire our deep annoyance and ultimately our pity. A rather standard storyline between two characters can often have shocking implications years later, as seeds are planted by a writing team that has the opportunity to plan ahead without worrying that their show will shortly be confined to the dustbin.

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At the same time, yes, some truly insane shit is happening out there in space during For All Mankind. With a terrified U.S. unable to peacock their space achievements from the get-go, their need to beat the Russians surges. No longer is it just about planting a flag, but staking a claim on the moon’s resources. Inevitably, it also means arming their astronauts, with all the high stakes that come with guns, bombs, a pesky language barrier, and an intense fear of the enemy. And why even stop at the moon anyway, when Mars is calling?

For All Mankind may have passed you by for a spell, as it did me, but it’s easy to become invested in its alternate history and potential future. If the series keeps going, it will eventually catch up to where we are now, and it will be fascinating to see how different the world is through the eyes of these characters. As the show pulls in scientific discoveries and themes from the present day, it also enhances its core concept in unexpected ways. More than once I’ve found myself googling “did x really happen?” to find out that it didn’t happen, but it could tomorrow.

Appreciating that we’re already three seasons deep in For All Mankind, there’s still time to get up to date with the series before the fourth season is released, and there’s never been a better time to catch up. The constant gush of new shows and movies will soon be slowing to a trickle. Why not invest in something really well crafted that you can savor? 

Who knows, you might even find yourself taking to the internet to yell “For All Mankind deserves to be the biggest sci-fi show on TV”, hoping your enthusiasm catches on. And if you’re already a fan, tell a friend. These days, word of mouth really does matter.