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Review: Steve Carell’s ‘Space Force’ stalls after liftoff

When president Donald Trump announced the creation of a sixth military branch – the Space Force – back in June of 2018, the world reacted with a laugh. So did Steve Carell and Greg Daniels, the duo largely responsible for “The Office,” one of the most beloved television comedies of all time.

Now, two years later, they turned their mutual amusement into a new Netflix Original named after the branch. At first glance, the concept sounds ingenious. Who better to poke fun at the president and tackle a workplace comedy in space than the workplace comedy gods themselves?

Unfortunately, the result is far more grounded – both literally and figuratively – than those lofty expectations. Instead of blasting off into the upper echelon of modern TV comedies, “Space Force” falters upon reaching the upper atmosphere and ends up lost in the streaming shuffle.

Steve Carell as General Mark R. Naird in “Space Force.” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

When Air Force General Mark Naird (Carell) earns his coveted fourth star, his inevitable promotion to lead the aerial service branch is just moments away – or so he thought. Instead, Naird assigned as head of the Space Force, the newest military branch engineered by an unnamed president to achieve one goal: “boots on the moon by 2024.”

As a result, Naird is forced to uproot his family from Washington, D.C. and move his wife (Lisa Kudrow) and daughter (Diana Silvers) out into the middle of nowhere, Colorado, where the new branch will set up base.

But what exactly will they do once they get there? Flash forward one year and it’s still unclear. After little progress, Naird and head Space Force scientist Dr. Adrian Mallory (John Malkovich) finally succeed with their first unmanned launch, despite their constant bickering and differing outlooks.

Joining Naird and Mallory are a crew of ambitious spacemen, some promising, and others not so much. There’s the loud-mouthed head of media relations, F. Tony Scarapiducci (Ben Schwartz), an obvious nod to the short-lived Anthony Scaramucci, Mallory’s second in command, Dr. Chan Kaifang (Jimmy O. Yang), Naird’s dim-witted but well-intentioned assistant Brad (Don Lake) and Captain Angela Ali (Tawny Newsome) an astronaut-in-training.

Throughout the 10-episode season, Naird, Mallory, the Space Force crew and an all-star host of celebrity cameos do their best to decipher how exactly to get those boots on the moon, and avoid disaster along the way. But the characters aren’t the only ones confused about their objective – Carell and Daniels are, too. Ultimately, “Space Force” never really decides what type of show it wants to be.

John Malkovich as Dr. Adrian Mallory in “Space Force.” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

The humor peaks in the series’ second episode, titled “Save Epsilon 6!” It’s a truly laugh-out-loud funny half hour as Naird and Co. attempt to guide a “chimp-stronaut” through a repair job on a rocket in outer space. The sheer outlandishness of it all – a team of military generals and scientists relying on a test primate to save the day – is enough to leave you with high hopes for the rest of the season once the credits roll. However, after Episode 2, the laughs are few and far between.

This is due in large part to the series’ dramatic tonal imbalance. While an episode may occasionally flirt with ludicrous scenarios, like the chimp-stronaut, more often than not “Space Force” ends up taking itself far too seriously. The resulting awkwardness leaves viewers uncertain whether they should be laughing or on the edge of their seat.

The ambiguity extends to the characters, too, and most significantly to Carell’s Naird. As fans of “The Office” are well aware, Michael Scott is an accident waiting to happen. Although it oftentimes ends in disaster, more often than not the human hazard has good intentions. While it’s refreshing to see Carell hasn’t simply copy and pasted his character from Dunder Mifflin into the U.S. military, Naird’s behavior raises more questions than it answers.

Is he a bumbling idiot in charge? He very well may be, considering he’s frequently seen butting heads with Mallory and the scientists due to his inability to comprehend their research. Or, is he just ignorant and refusing to listen to reason? Whichever it is, the qualities don’t make Naird a very sympathetic character to anchor the series.

Steve Carell as General Mark R. Naird in “Space Force.” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

Perhaps the most disappointing part of “Space Force,” though, is Daniels and Carell’s decision to not really say much of anything. Clearly, the show was conceived out of the idea of the real-life creation of Space Force. With that understanding, the expectation heading into the series, at least for me, was a political satire poking fun at the current administration and the United States’ political climate as a whole. That doesn’t require scathing political commentary or setting up camp on one side of the party line or the other, but it gives the opportunity to take shots at both sides – a balancing act “Veep” handled masterfully.

“Space Force” makes a few light jabs, like referencing the unnamed president’s angry tweets, or including an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-inspired “Angry Young Congresswoman” (AYC, not AOC), but the show ultimately never dives deeper than surface level. With a premise so rooted in modern politics, it’s a shame to see so many opportunities go to waste.

Despite the season one struggles, I’m not ready to count “Space Force” out quite yet. The foundation for a successful series is there, and the uber-talented cast certainly is too, plus the Netflix budget. With a little constructive criticism, Carell and Daniels could easily have this political comedy back on track and ready for liftoff. After all, the first season of “The Office” didn’t land perfectly, either.

Star Rating:

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

“Space Force” is now streaming exclusively on Netflix.

Zach Goins View All

Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Charlotte, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.

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