It must be hard making comedy in the banter timeline. No matter what ridiculous farce sitcom writers can come up with, real life keeps throwing up things that are even more absurd. At a time when we’re engaged in a national discussion about whether a 30-mile drive constitutes an eye test, it’s sometimes hard to tell whether you’re reading a live news blog, or a Wikipedia plot summary of The Thick of It.
So maybe the best thing to do is to just lean into the chaos. That’s the approach taken by Space Force, a new Netflix comedy series from Greg Daniels and Steve Carrell, who last worked together to great acclaim on the US version of The Office.
It’s based on the real-life United States Space Force (USSF), a new branch of the American military created by Donald Trump in December 2019 as part of his policy of doing exactly what a ten-year-old would do if elected to high office.
Like a small child, Trump presumably got bored of the $15 billion USSF after playing with it for a few hours – although earlier this week he did unveil the new Space Force flag, and boasted of a “super-duper” missile that he claims is 17 times faster than what the Chinese and Russians have. (Experts disagree.)
So it’s from this barely credible waking nightmare that Space Force the show has to try and extract some (more) laughs. Carrell plays general Mark Naird, the man tasked with leading America’s brave new forays into the firmament. This, unfortunately, involves moving his family – wife Maggie (played by Friends star Lisa Kudrow) and teenage daughter Erin (Diana Silvers, best known for a small part in Booksmart) – from the cosmopolitan embrace of Washington DC to Space Force’s new headquarters in Wild Horse, Colorado (the real USSF is based at the Pentagon).
Carrell is in good form as Naird, a rigid former pilot and Air Force general flung into a role he never really wanted – there are hints of his character from The Office mixed with just a touch of Anchorman’s Brick Tamland in some of the tics and mannerisms on show.
Much was made of Kudrow’s presence before launch, but she is criminally underused – presumably because her screen time costs more per minute than sending an actual rocket into space – with her character in jail for pretty much the entire series for reasons that are never actually explained.
Not that money will have been an issue for the creators. Netflix has clearly thrown a huge amount of cash at Space Force, with expansive set design and pretty convincing CGI of everything from rocket launches to a chimp doing a spacewalk (in a standout episode early on – it’s better than it sounds).
Some of the show’s best moments come from Naird’s interactions with Dr Adrian Mallory, Space Force’s chief scientist, played by John Malkovich in his first television comedy role. The renowned actor does a good line in exasperated fury – which comes up a lot as his character tries to conduct careful science while also meeting the increasingly ridiculous demands being handed down from the government. In a way, Malkovich is in the role of the audience here – watching on in helpless rage as the idiots in charge ruin everything.
The US president remains an offscreen presence throughout, referred to only as POTUS, and communicating mostly through tweets and text messages – but his demands drive the plot of the show, which mainly centres around America’s efforts to catch up with China in the modern space race. The other political characters in the show are equally thinly veiled – from Naird’s media manager Tony ‘Scarapiducci’ (played by Ben Schwartz of Parks & Recreation) to the “angry young congresswoman from New York” who is a clear parody of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It’s surprising there’s no Elon Musk-analogue, but maybe they’re saving that for season two.
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Overall, the show is a weird hybrid of workplace comedy and political satire, with some touching moments as Naird tries to rebuild his relationship with his daughter. Despite the slick presentation, the pacing sometimes feels a little off – with some threads and characters picked up and them seemingly forgotten, and others feeling slightly rushed. It does that West Wing trick of jumping ahead in time quite a lot between episodes – given the slow pace of real-world space exploration this is important to keep the plot ticking along, but it can mean character building happens on fast forward.
There are some genuinely laugh out loud moments and enjoyably ludicrous scenes across the ten episodes – from a mock space battle between the Space Force and the Air Force, played out with balloons and scissors in place as spacesuits and weapons, to Naird’s failed attempts at delicate international diplomacy after the sabotage of a US satellite.
Space Force lands just as the US (hopefully) carries out its first manned space launch in almost a decade with the help of SpaceX, a company whose previous shipments into orbit include a giant wheel of cheese and a Tesla roadster, owned by a cartoon character of an eccentric billionaire. If things progress as they have done, the show’s biggest problem might be staying ahead of real-world events.
Amit Katwala is WIRED’s culture editor. He tweets from @amitkatwala
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