A long-overdue and unnecessary reflection on ‘Space Force’

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What seems like an eternity ago, Netflix aired their brand new sitcom “Space Force” by creators Greg Daniels and Steve Carrell. Inspired by the recent creation of a very real United States Space Force, this first season follows a fictional first commander of Space Force as he and his top scientist attempt to revitalize public interest in space exploration and get a leg up on China in the race to militarize space.

Interestingly, as the United States Space Force began operations when the series was already in production, the show is not a representation of any real events. Instead, it provides a satirical look at how such an organization could possibly operate given the current administration’s checkered past.

It is inevitable to draw comparisons between this and the last collaboration between Daniels and Carrell, the wildly popular NBC series “The Office.” Both series focus on Carrell in the role of a manager over a dysfunctional workplace and his interactions with a diverse cast of subordinates. 

While “The Office” is shot in a simplistic faux-documentary style against fairly mundane backdrops, “Space Force” relies heavily on spectacle, both in terms of its lavish sets and realistic special effects. 

The lower budget and smaller scale of “The Office” were not only part of its charm, but also an integral reason for the show’s success. The visuals in “Space Force” are very impressive, especially for a sitcom, yet they have a tendency to distract from or even overwhelm the humor.

Without the luxury of flashy visuals to fall back on, the success or failure of “The Office” rested squarely on the quality of the writing and performances. This resulted in some of the most memorable characters and story arcs in sitcom history and propelled some of the cast members into stardom — notably Carrell, John Krasinski, Mindy Kaling, Rashida Jones and Ellie Kemper, just to name a few. 

This is not to say that “Space Force” is lacking in terms of characters and storylines. As of this review, there has only been a single season of “Space Force” compared to the whopping nine seasons of “The Office.” The cast of “Space Force” is mostly likeable and entertaining, but it is clear the writers and actors still have work to do on fleshing out these characters.

The standout performance is from John Malkovitch as the head scientist of Space Force, Dr. Adrian Mallory. Reminiscent of Jeff Goldblum’s portrayal of Dr. Ian Malcolm in the 1993 film “Jurassic Park,” Mallory provides a source of wry commentary on what he sees as the more unjust aims of Space Force. While at times composed and analytical, Mallory’s temper often gets the better of him, sending him into bouts of rage (all highly entertaining).  

Obviously, you can’t review the series without discussing Carrell, who delivers a surprisingly understated performance as General Mark Naird, the commander of the newly formed Space Force. Carrell’s career has evolved considerably since his breakthrough on “The Dana Carvey Show” and “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” in the late 90s. Back then, he was known for his exaggerated characters like Brick Tamland in “Anchorman” or Andy Stitzer in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” Over time, however, Carrell has found success as a dramatic actor in films like “Beautiful Boy” and “Foxcatcher.” If Michael Scott of “The Office” can be lumped into the earlier portion of his career, General Naird definitely falls more into the latter (though still a comedic performance).

While Naird is shown to exemplify certain military stereotypes (his gruff voice sounds like it was lifted directly from George C. Scott in “Patton”), Daniels and Carrell add a welcome layer of nuance that helps to humanize him. With his wife (played by “Friends” star Lisa Kudrow) in prison for some undisclosed crime, Naird takes on the responsibilities of a single father in raising their teenage daughter Erin (Diana Silvers). Naird’s difficulty dealing with his new family situation as well as balancing both the military and scientific goals of Space Force provide most of the drama in the series and drive his growth as a character. 

While not as outrageous or zany as his role in “The Office,” Carrell still manages to bring the laughs. Once again, a lot of the humor comes from the incompetent manager setup, only this time it’s less Ricky Gervais-style cringe humor and more in the vein of political satire à la “Veep.” In fact, the influence of “Veep” can be found throughout the season, not just in the style of the comedy but also in characters and themes. Ben Schwartz’s role as the social media director of Space Force feels like it was plucked directly from the inner circle of Selina Meyer. “Space Force” also maintains a deeply cynical outlook toward the nation’s top officials, portrayed here as inept or unstable, although with far less nuance or wit than Armando Iannucci.

The series also features strong performances by Jimmy O. Yang of “Silicon Valley” and Tawny Newsome, as Dr. Chan Kaifang and Captain Angela Ali, respectively. Yang and Newsome are both likeable in their roles and have strong chemistry on screen together. Captain Ali has one of the most interesting arcs in the series as she progresses from the role of helicopter pilot to both the first female astronaut and black astronaut to walk on the moon (neither of which, to be clear, have ever happened in real life). 

All in all, “Space Force” was an enjoyable piece of entertainment that managed to keep me engaged across all 10 episodes and left me interested in a second season. It may not be as clever as it thinks, but its charm and lighthearted tone make it an innocent bit of escapism. It may not be the best season of television this year, but, despite some of the negative press the series has received, it’s still very far from the worst. If you enjoyed “The Office” or “Veep,” I’d say it’s worth checking out.

My rating:

3 out of 5 Stars


Evan Burns is campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at evan.burns@uconn.edu.

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