Every once in a while, a sit-com with an ambitious concept gets the chance to be made with a budget to do it justice. Netflix’s Space Force is one of those shows: a ten-episode situation comedy that portrays a military branch attempting space missions usually seen only in historical dramas or science fiction.
This is an impressive looking show with some remarkable talent in front of and behind the screen, but Space Force’s concept carries some ideological baggage with it and has surprising tonal shifts that threaten its success.
Steve Carell is the anchor of the show as four-star general Mark Naird. Expecting to rise to the head of the Air Force, Naird is instead put at the head of the new division “Space Force” after an unnamed President declares that he wants “boots on the moon” in just a few years.
The show then follows Naird as he strives to complete this goal, including his conflicts with his lead scientists (John Malkovich and Jimmy O. Yang), fellow military branch heads (Noah Emmerich), media manager (Ben Schwartz), secretary (Don Lake) , and spacemen (Tawny Newsome), among others – not to mention Naird’s struggling family life (Lisa Kudrow and Diana Silvers).
The comedic talent on display is immense, and no character fails to be, at the least, engaging; indeed, most characters are genuinely likable or hilarious. That said, no single character steals the show and rises to become a classic, although Space Force’s combination of talented actors who are fully capable of improving lines with brilliant delivery helps make the show consistently funny.
This is the case whether Space Force is lampooning congresspeople from Oklahoma or New York, parodying the strict personalities and petty jealousies of military higher-ups, giving the characters absurd situations to react to, illustrating the comedic contrasts between characters’ personalities, or delving into Carell’s ability to portray social awkwardness - a source of comedy that The Office once so fruitfully mined.
All of these are methods of developing laugh-out-loud moments that Greg Daniels, series creator and showrunner, has honed to fine point in his previous shows Parks and Recreation and The Office.
The competence on display is obvious, as every line and moment are written and shot with confidence and are elevated beyond their heights by the abundant talent on-screen.
But the concept of the show, and the themes it explores, come with some baggage that complicates these obvious strengths. Space Force is very concerned with the conflict between science and personal ambition; between political expediency and the necessity of scientific advice.
As a result, much of the show revolves around General Naird and his chief scientist Dr. Adrian Mallory grappling between the advice of scientific experts and those in charge of the decisions. Mutual mistrust and frustration expose the limits and strengths both of those in power and those who make complicated systems work.
Space Force also uses disturbing trends in modern society or leadership for humor in a very direct way. The president tweets inappropriately and makes absurd demands; a soldier learns to read by looking up conspiracy theories online; leaders are generally presented as bumbling and selfish idiots.
Space Force is a show with a definite worldview, and as a result it may be hard to separate a cavalier attitude toward destructive elements of American society and the deteriorating state of the country in June, 2020. A pandemic, an economic crash, widespread protests and riots, fundamental issues in government and social life that seem unable to be solved as two diametrically opposed political camps go at each other’s throats, and a leadership that laymen have increasingly viewed for decades as unable to adequately solve such crises: such trends resist blunt mockery. The show’s poking fun at American dysfunction through its portrayal of high governmental leadership might be seen as tone-deaf.
But real life contains much which deserves to be made fun of, and Space Force does so in a way that mocks that which is absurd and treats with respect and nuance that which is more serious. To make fun of leadership, dysfunction, and twisted human motives has been a primary driver of comedy for centuries; to delegitimize a sitcom for doing exactly that is ridiculous, so long as it does so intelligently and appropriately.
Space Force does it, by and large, appropriately and, depending on one’s definition, intelligently: the show knows what to make fun of and how to do so.
Meanwhile the conflict of Space Force, that between science and politics, is ultimately done in a way that gives understanding and insight into both sides, treating the struggles and conflicting forces that influence these characters with sympathy and understanding.
This ultimately leads to a finale that encapsulates the show’s worldview with a message of personal responsibility and moral courage that is thoroughly well done.
Worth noting are the occasional tonal contrasts that make the show rather jarring. Near the end of the season certain lines and moments bring disturbing real-life situations consequences into the world of the show, which clash awkwardly with Space Force’s larger-than-life characters, tone, and stakes. For the most part, however, Space Force has a darker tinge to it that works in its favor.
As General Naird deals with an increasingly overwhelming life at home and work, the building pressure leads to a main character that experiences relatable struggles, grounding the show against its high-concept setting.
Make no mistake: Space Force is not a perfect piece of television. The pacing occasionally drags, the jokes don’t always land, and complex topics are clumsily tackled at times. But the charm and talent on screen is considerable, elevating Space Force into a sitcom truly worth watching.
The show’s setting and core conflict forces Space Force to grapple with disturbingly relevant implications, but it does so with enough respect and nuance to provide a place for genuinely funny moments and likable characters. In the end, Space Force grapples with its themes of personal responsibility and the conflict between modern politics and science in a way that is satisfying.
Dealing with these complex themes of national importance is a strange tightrope for a sitcom to walk, but this is the story the creators of Space Force wanted to tell, and so walk it Space Force does, if imperfectly. More remarkable is that the show manages to get so many laughs along the way.