As of this writing, with a chaotic and emotionally draining presidential election still undecided, I might not be the only person feeling an impulse to pull a Doctor Manhattan, leave Earth behind, and be shot into outer space. (Has the International Space Station made its way onto Airbnb yet?) Oddly enough, television has been ready to help satisfy that desire: In 2020, space-faring adventures have been all the rage. From Away and Space Force on Netflix to the Disney+ adaptation of The Right Stuff and HBO’s Avenue 5, we’ve gotten more than our fair share of space exploration on the small screen. The only reason we haven’t peaked with space-related entertainment is because Tom Cruise hasn’t left the planet’s orbit yet.
But with these series, quantity hasn’t exactly meant quality. Away, an earnest and emotional drama about astronauts venturing to Mars and leaving loved ones behind from the executive producer of Friday Night Lights, has already been canceled after one season; Netflix’s try-hard Trump farce Space Force was certainly bad enough to warrant cancellation (that hasn’t been announced yet, but there hasn’t been any news of a Season 2 renewal for the series either); there was no conceivable way for Disney+’s take on The Right Stuff to be anywhere near as good as Philip Kaufman’s Oscar-winning film adaptation; and Avenue 5, while caustically funny in moments, is a noticeable step down from creator Armando Iannucci’s previous HBO comedy, Veep. As a self-professed space obsessive, my hopes for a truly great space-based season of television coming out this year—not including Ridley Scott’s Raised By Wolves, which is more in the spirit of “Westworld on cocaine”—rests in the reliable hands of The Expanse, which is returning for a fifth season. (December 16 can’t come soon enough, for many reasons.)
But in the meantime, there’s still one space-adjacent series ready to fill the void, and it’s far and away the most understated of what’s become a crowded category: Moonbase 8, a Showtime comedy premiering Sunday about aspiring astronauts training at a NASA lunar camp in the Arizona desert. Moonbase 8 mainly focuses on three bumbling characters—Robert “Cap” Caputo (John C. Reilly), Dr. Michael “Skip” Henai (Fred Armisen), and Scott “Rook” Sloan (Tim Heidecker)—though one of the show’s recurring gags is a rotating fourth member of the ensemble getting deployed to the moon almost immediately after being stationed with dudes who’ve been living at the base for 200 days and counting. One of those other astronauts-in-training is Travis Kelce—yes, Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce—playing himself. (Though Kelce is actually quite funny, he’s very mean to John C. Reilly, which should be a criminal offense.)
While other astronaut shows have focused on the emotional toll of space exploration or, in the case of Space Force, bureaucratic incompetence on the ground, Moonbase 8 feels weirdly primed for 2020 viewing since the series mines most of its comedy from the characters’ prolonged isolation eating away at their sanity. (This is a bizarre coincidence; the show was first announced in 2018.) The premise will feel uncomfortably familiar for those of us who’ve been quarantining for the better part of the year—the fact that the third episode of the season focuses on a viral outbreak at the base getting some of the astronauts sick, and is literally titled “Quarantine,” might as well come with an advisory warning.
Interestingly, Reilly has said in interviews that the original premise for Moonbase 8 was in the spirit of John Carpenter’s The Thing—I would like to see it—and you can sense some traces of that DNA, especially in the quarantine-focused installment. Still, Moonbase 8 ultimately relying on low-impact absurdist humor is a good, if not more conventional, use of the core cast’s comedic talents in front of and behind the camera. (Reilly, Armisen, and Heidecker share writing credits on each episode, along with series director Jonathan Krisel.)
Armisen, in particular, does a hilarious job capturing the deep-seated insecurities of a man trying to live up to the greatness of his father, a NASA pioneer during the space race, while Heidecker gets good mileage out of playing a born-again Christian hoping to spread the gospel throughout the cosmos. (All while his local pastor appears to have moved in with his character’s wife.) Reilly, meanwhile, shoulders much of the physical comedy and makes an admirable commitment to silly space-related bits, like having a full-on freakout about losing oxygen when there’s a breach in his astronaut suit in the Arizona desert or resorting to rationing bottles of champagne when they run out of water.
But while the characters get under each others’ skin, and lunar camp conflicts escalate to the point of potentially assassinating a possible Russian undercover agent, the show doesn’t have the same cynical spirit as Space Force or Avenue 5. Rather, the closest comparison, as far as 2020 TV comedies go, may well be Ted Lasso, which is shockingly one of the best shows of the year. Moonbase 8 isn’t anywhere as good as the new crown jewel of Apple TV+, but it has the same undercurrent of earnest optimism flowing through the series. At the end of the day, and in some very relatable circumstances of isolation, Cap, Skip, and Rook come together like an oddball family.
Similar to Ted Lasso, which is more heartwarming than laugh-out-loud funny, Moonbase 8 works best if approached as a wholesome balm—the kind of low-stakes show you can watch to lift your spirits. It feels like a happy coincidence that an earnest, brisk (the six episodes can be watched in under three hours), and uplifting comedy can serve as a light diversion at the end of an awful year, and that it also just so happens to focus on characters trying to make the best out of essentially being in quarantine. At this point, the only thing better than cleansing the soul with a silly astronaut comedy would be a one-way ticket to the moon. Unlike Moonbase 8, water’s in good supply.