It is a testament to whatever post-peak era of TV we’re in that, less than halfway through 2020, there have already been two separate riffs on the concept “Veep, but in space.”
The first series all but inherited the setup. Premiering in January, HBO’s Avenue 5 was the latest project from Veep creator Armando Iannucci, the Scottish writer who elevated profanity to high art with The Thick of It. Avenue 5 saw Iannucci take his scalpel to the private sector, not to mention the cosmos, but the basic theme remained the same: institutional incompetence, enabled and exacerbated by individual folly. Hugh Laurie, Zach Woods, and Josh Gad sealed the sales pitch.
The second show’s similarities are more incidental. Space Force, debuting on Netflix this Friday, is the latest collaboration between cocreators Greg Daniels and Steve Carrell. Naturally, it’s meant to evoke that duo’s previous show, The Office, the sitcom Netflix is single-handedly responsible for making a touchstone of the streaming era. Space Force is far flashier than its predecessor, but underneath its top-dollar effects and big-name stars, it’s yet another workplace comedy starring Carrell as a blowhard who can’t take a hint.
Still, Space Force is about a very particular kind of workplace: the highest levels of American government, with all the ceremony and trappings of dignity that entails. When a comedy mines its jokes from the rich, wide vein between our leaders’ high-minded self-image and their undignified reality, Veep is the (admittedly high) bar. But like the flat, disjointed Avenue 5 before it, Space Force ends up falling well short.
Space Force takes its name from the brand-new armed forces division established in December of last year, the first since the creation of the Air Force in 1947. It’s also the first military branch to originate with an impromptu presidential rant that contradicts his administration’s own stated policy. Such typical Trumpian antics were grist for the mill of the late-night-industrial complex, which seized on the exquisitely dumb image of an overgrown toddler playing with multibillion-dollar rocket ships. But Daniels and Carrell took the clowning one step further by announcing a full-blown TV show eight months after Trump’s speech.
The premise of Space Force carries with it the basic challenge of all Trump-adjacent parodies: Can a writer’s room hope to come up with anything as deeply and darkly hilarious as real life? Could anyone ever make up a military branch proudly debuting a logo that blatantly rips off Star Trek? The Good Fight has earned critical adoration for crafting fiction just as strange as truth, but looking back on the past four years, it’s one of the only exceptions that proves the rule.
Space Force is no exception. Carrell plays General Mark Naird, the unfortunate soul tasked with turning a garbled tweet into an actual organization—a decidedly apt metaphor for spinning a goofy punch line into a 10-episode TV show. Like the actual Space Force, General Naird’s fiefdom is spun out from the Air Force and honored with a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Unlike the actual Space Force, the fictional version runs out of a top-secret facility hidden, James Bond style, in the Colorado mountains. Naird drags his wife, Maggie (Lisa Kudrow), and daughter, Erin (Diana Silvers), out to the wilderness and dedicates himself to the impossible task of making space great again.
Does Naird’s unquestioning devotion to the mission make him a sort of Trump in miniature—a deluded tyrant to be gently coaxed by his put-upon underlings? Or is he a good man just trying to make the best of an awful situation? The fundamental problem with Space Force is that it doesn’t seem to know, and the result is a show that pulls its punches. Space Force lacks the conviction to make Naird a new Selina Meyer but also lacks the ability to sell us on Naird’s struggles as a conflict worth investing in. Like its astronauts, Space Force floats in a vacuum, formless and without edge.
This have-it-no-way approach is evident in how Space Force depicts the president, or rather, doesn’t. There are jokes about tweet typos—presumably, the commander in chief wants boots on the moon, not boobs—and the first lady taking over uniform design, but neither Trump nor Melania gets mentioned by name. Space Force wants to leverage current events for laughs, yet it’s too gun-shy to call out the elephant in the room. Maybe Space Force doesn’t want to burst its fictional bubble, but when the very name of your show is ripped from the headlines, the time for halfhearted hedges is long past.
Without a more specific sensibility to guide its actors, Space Force ends up squandering its supporting cast. Ben Schwartz brings his trademark whine to the now-stock character of “millennial social media expert,” saddled with lines written by people who don’t seem to spend much time online. Booksmart standout Silvers is stuck on an entirely different show about a disaffected teen; “My So-Called Life with tumbleweeds” doesn’t really square with “Office Space in actual space.” John Malkovich follows up The New Pope by playing Dr. Adrian Mallory, a scientist who abhors the militarization of space even as he’s paid to assist with it. His point is a good one—but Space Force waffles on whether it agrees with him.
As many problems as Space Force has, they can all be traced back to a single source. Space Force is designed as both character study and star vehicle; Carrell’s credit as cocreator signals the active role he took in shaping General Naird into Michael Scott with a crew cut. But as past examples of star-driven TV have shown, the hands-on involvement of an actor can be a double-edged sword. Whenever Space Force shows some unearned affection for Naird’s stubborn ignorance, or clears out a few minutes of screen time so he can dance to the Beach Boys, it seems to confuse how we feel about Steve Carrell with how we feel about his current role.
Space Force is a satire with many worthy targets: jingoism, the military-industrial complex, the myth of American exceptionalism. Yet it sails past most of them, opting instead to give Naird wins he doesn’t need. One midseason episode centers on a congressional hearing where Naird gets raked over the coals by a legislator blatantly based on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. After the representative makes a slew of valid points about runaway spending for little to no results, Naird stumbles, at least at first. Then he makes an inspirational speech about the triumph of the human spirit, one the swelling score (and satisfied committee) suggests we’re meant to find a lot more convincing than it actually is.
Daniels and Carrell don’t need to deliver a polemic on the evils of government waste or new age imperialism. What they do need is to make their audience laugh, and Space Force’s decisions are as deadly to its comedy as they are to its commentary. Granted, the duo has faced similar obstacles before; it took The Office a couple of tries to make Michael Scott more than B-list David Brent, and while few series get the breathing room to adjust themselves these days, a Steve Carrell Netflix show could easily be one of them. Until then, Space Force blunts its own edge by declining to go for the jugular, succeeding neither as farce nor as fun adventure. It shoots for the moon and lands somewhere on a Rocky Mountain airstrip.