This SPACE FORCE review contains no spoilers and is based on all 10 episodes.
Steve Carell, The Office-star turned Hollywood leading man, made his return to television last year with The Morning Show. As the flagship series for Apple TV+, featuring another high-profile return to TV (Jennifer Aniston), the show cost an exorbitant $15 million an episode. However, high production costs and loads of talent in front of and behind the camera couldn’t save The Morning Show from being received tepidly from critics. With an embarrassment of riches at their disposal, the consensus was that surely Apple could do better.
Unfortunately, Carell’s second attempt at a post-Office series for rival Netflix leaves a similar impression. Space Force, which debuts on the streaming service on May 29th, pairs Carell with an inspired cast featuring John Malkovich, Ben Schwartz, Jimmy O. Yang and Lisa Kudrow. It also features impressive set design, top-notch special effects, and a gorgeous, cinematic look, yet Space Force doesn’t have enough juice to rocket out of the troposphere, let alone our atmosphere to become an out-of-this-world hit.
It’s easy to see why Netflix threw money behind this idea. The Office is something of a streaming juggernaut for the platform, but they are losing the sitcom to the NBC streaming service Peacock come 2021. Netflix was likely hoping that Space Force, created by Carell and Office creator Greg Daniels, would fill that void. They announced the project almost instantly after President Donald Trump revealed his intentions to start a “Space Force” branch of the United States military, immediately seeing the satirical and storytelling potential, yet those looking for sharp commentary or lively interstellar storylines should look elsewhere.
Carell leads Space Force as Mark Naird, a four-star general given the unenviable task of turning the Space Force into a reality. Starting a new branch of the military from the ground up could have been an exciting jumping off point, but as soon as General Naird is given his assignment in the pilot’s opening minutes, a time-jump shows the fully operational Space Force on the day of their first big rocket launch. Naird is eager to impress his superiors and snickering Air Force colleagues, which leads him to ignore sage advice from his exasperated chief scientist Adrian Mallory (Malkovich). Their dynamic, Naird’s hard-nose determination versus Mallory’s scientific practicality, drives the show, and both actors give committed performances, it’s just that the pair don’t elicit many laughs.
Greg Daniels’ other new 2020 show for Amazon, Upload, featured a similar problem. The show had a great premise, a game cast, and a well-realized, in-show universe, it just wasn’t very funny. Part of the problem is the show’s tone, which never really commits to being a farce or satire, stays too grounded, and frequently indulges earnest moments celebrating American exceptionalism, which creates a feeling of whiplash. There’s a moment in the pilot in which the late Fred Willard, playing Carell’s senile father, delivers a laugh out loud phone call detailing his enjoyment of crawling under his own home and Carell reacts with over-the-top horror. This sort of zany, 30 Rock-esque tone would have been perfect for a show that sounded as silly as Space Force, but things are played too straight.
The show also pulls its punches when it comes to its inspiration. Trump is never mentioned by name, and any jokes at his expense are complete softballs. Bizarrely, the series directs more venom toward Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. More disappointing is the waste of Space Force’s supporting characters, who aren’t given much to do until the halfway point of the season and still don’t make much of an impression, save for a much-needed laugh here and there. At one point one character says to another “Nice talking to you for the second time in my life” and that really sums up a lot of the character interactions that don’t involve Naird. A lot of screen time is devoted to Naird’s daughter Erin (Booksmart’s Diana Silvers) trying to get more attention from her father, but both characters are honestly a bit unlikable, so the emotional element never quite lands.
At times it feels like Carell realizes that the show around him doesn’t quite work, like he’s trying to carry the mess and will it to greatness. Without Carell bringing fond memories of Michael Scott and working his ass off to sell this thing, the series would truly be an unmitigated disaster. With him, it’s just a glossy, great looking misfire, though I wouldn’t say it’s beyond salvaging. There are a couple of moments, like the before-mentioned Fred Willard material and a scene involving a CGI primate astronaut, that hint at a sillier version of Space Force that could take flight, but as it stands this is just another expensive disappointment.