*****HIGHLY CLASSIFIED: SPOILERS INSIDE! *****
Netflix has just unveiled a new Steve Carrell-produced/starring streaming series that takes place in a reality just west of our own; it’s a universe that still has Star Wars, Twitter, Tiktok, K-Pop, the Apollo lunar landings, Donald Trump (though never mentioned by name) and other alignments with our own universe, but it also sees China and the US engaging in frat house-style shenanigans on the surface of the moon. It’s the satiric, slightly sci-fi alternate reality of “Space Force.”
What was probably intended as “The Office” Goes To Space is actually a closer spiritual successor to Stanley Kubrick’s equally scathing Cold War satirical classic, “Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964), which has also gained newfound relevancy in the age of Donald Trump’s capricious, unstable presidency. Both involve branches of the military struggling to function under the madness of their respective leaders, as well as their own incompetencies.
In the case of “Dr. Strangelove” it is all just an exercise in futility as the world is doomed to radioactive stupidity. But in “Space Force,” there are still kernels of optimism and decency in some of the characters. The barbs aren’t aimed at the heroism of everyday soldiers…. they are aimed squarely at their leadership.
Series’ star and co-creator Steve Carrell’s inflexible, anal-retentive, wannabe-macho General Mark Naird unclenches his butt cheeks a bit during the 10 episodes of Season 1. When we first meet him, he is called into a joint meeting of the military’s top brass and told he is being put in charge of Trump’s newly announced 6th military branch, “Space Force”, much to the bitter disdain of his former US Air Force rival General Grabaston (Noah Emmerich). From there, the series finds much of its humor in defining exactly what a “Space Force” is supposed to do, as well as justifying its grandiose budget. Everything at the Space Force campus in remote Colorado is opulently-appointed, shiny, and state of the art…if only it were needed. The series sees this new, sixth branch of the military spending a great sum of its time justifying its reason for existing.
Naird is something of a modern-day Maxwell Smart (a role Carrell himself played in the big screen reboot of TV’s “Get Smart”), but with a teensy bit more self-awareness, and a closeted affinity for older pop songs (such as “Kokomo” and “Bread & Butter”, which nicely show off Carrell’s comic vocals). The hilariously uptight Naird is a man beset on all sides; from the general’s mysteriously-incarcerated wife Maggie (Lisa Kudrow), neglected, rebellious daughter Erin (Diana Silvers) and senile father Fred (the recently deceased comedic genius Fred Willard) to his own staff, beginning with Naird’s too often-ignored science advisor Dr. Adrian Mallory (John Malkovich), an effete intellectual who is in razor sharp contrast with Naird’s own brand of toxic masculinity.
The closest thing “Space Force” has to a genuine ‘hero’ type is the level-headed astronaut candidate Captain Angela Ali (Tawny Newsome), whom we are introduced to early on, as she taxis her new boss in a helicopter (despite her fighter pilot qualifications). She arguably has the greatest arc of the series as we see her go from overlooked astronaut candidate and potential love interest of civilian Mission Controller Dr. Chan Kaifang (Jimmy O. Yang) to leading a platoon of plumbers and other non-military recruits into a rushed lunar colony mission. Newsome has charm to spare, and manages to imbue Captain Ali with enough goofiness and silliness to prevent her from being a dreaded “Mary Sue” character.
We also meet the Space Force’s public relations guru, F. Tony Scarapiducci (Ben Schwartz), who is more commonly known as “F#@k Tony.” Tony is a scathing riff on former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, whose name quickly became synonymous with short-term employment. We also get to know some of the Space Force Mission Controllers, such as the aforementioned Dr. Kaifang, and Dr. Ranatunga (Punam Patel). Naird doesn’t garner much respect from his highly educated team, who are largely non-military personnel and therefore enjoy a very different relationship with their ridiculous new leader than his other chain-of-command subordinates. Naird’s relationship with his team is a faint echo of Colonel Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson) and his fellow draftee doctors at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in the long-running Korean war dramedy “M*A*S*H” (1972-1983).
General Brad Gregory (Don Lake) is Naird’s impossibly spineless and useless aide-de-camp lackey who speaks to the revolving door of incompetent Trump-abiding sycophants who enter and exit current Washington DC like a parade of clowns in and out of a Volkswagen. Gregory’s main qualifier for his job is that he saved Naird’s life once, and that’s about it. Gen. Gregory is benign but utterly useless, with constant jokes made regarding his qualifications as a general.
The series also makes an interesting evolution from flat-out modern military satire to something resembling an honest-to-goodness science fiction series by the end of its freshman season. The pilot and second episodes deal with the successful launch and eventual loss of a critical satellite at the hands of Chinese saboteurs as well as incompetence. This sets up a childish tit-for-tat with China that leads to global consequences on the surface of the moon; all of which echoes Trump’s capricious relationship with China. Even Ohio-born Dr. Kaifang (Yang) is sometimes at the receiving end of anti-Chinese sentiment, which is darkly comedic commentary on the current scapegoating directed at Chinese Americans, who have become an underserved receptacle for much of America’s own current impotent rage.
The frat-boy rivalry between China and the US on the surface of the moon in the final two episodes is a (much) lighter version of the events played out in writer/producer/co-creator Ronald D. Moore’s recent AppleTV series “For All Mankind” (2019). Moore’s series was set in another alternate universe in which Soviet-era Russians beat Americans to the surface of the moon in 1969. Both series feature rival moon bases which deliver the opening salvos of new hot wars set in outer space. The childish, self-defeating acts of sabotage the US and China commit against each other remind me of the war room pie fight and screw-it-all nuclear apocalypse ending of “Dr. Strangelove.” The moon buggy chases seen in “Space Force” are also very reminiscent of the much heavier-handed “Ad Astra” (2019) Despite the later escalation, it’s still inspiring to see Captain Ali achieve her own dream of landing on the moon, despite her slip-of-the-tongue first words on the lunar surface (“It’s good to be black on the moon…Oh s#!t!”). Even Ali’s crew of assorted blue collar-workers-turned-astronauts (throwing shade at 1998’s moronic “Armageddon”) manage to rise to the occasion a bit when they finally land at the outer edge of Mare Tranquillitatis, where the Chinese have staked a mining claim (not far from the original Apollo 11 landing site).
In a darkly comic variation on the long-suffering military wife, former “Friends” costar Lisa Kudrow’s Maggie Naird is seen sobbing uncontrollably on her side of the bed after Mark delivers news of his transfer to head up Space Force Command in a remote region of Colorado. Mark, of course, is utterly oblivious to Maggie’s misery at the prospect of leaving Washington DC for rural Colorado.
In fact, the move to Colorado is so traumatic for Maggie that a year later we learn she is doing hard time in prison for the next “40 to 60 years” for an as-yet-unspecified crime. The unspeakable offense will no doubt serve as this series’ “Vera” (the unseen wife of barfly Norm in “Cheers”) for the foreseeable future of the show. The end of the season sees both Maggie and Mark attempting an ‘open marriage’ for the sake of their respective sanities, as well as a surprise turn of events regarding Maggie’s incarceration. Maggie’s story is possibly a nod to an earlier breakout Netflix series, “Orange Is the New Black” (2013-2019).
The dysfunctional Naird family has a sole child, neglected daughter Erin (Diana Silvers), whose own ‘cries for help’ are screams falling on largely deaf ears. During the course of 10 episodes, we see Erin romancing Russian mole “Bobby” (Alex Sparrow) on the base (commentary on the current president’s bizarre relationship with Russia), and rejecting the amiable advances of clinically unimaginative base MP Duncan Tabner (Spencer House), whom acid-witted Erin sees as little more than a windup toy soldier upon which she can sharpen her claws. Desperate for attention from her too-busy dad and incarcerated mom, Erin tries every teen rebellion cliche in the book to get her parents to notice her, which leads to an insane de facto ‘family reunion’ at the end of the season.
Acting legend John Malkovich plays the Spock to Naird’s Kirk on the Space Force campus. Malkovich’s Dr. Adrian Malloy is the deeply sarcastic, erudite and often overruled voice of reason to Mark’s unchecked brashness. Adrian is the Dr. Anthony Fauci to Naird’s Trump… a voice of science and logic in a military branch that was created without respect to either. He has the near-impossible task of making the impossible possible, while watching the campus jocks take the credit. Malloy wins some of Naird’s respect when he saves the Space Force team during a ‘friendly competition’ with the Air Force. Malloy is also humanized following his embarrassingly-outed relationship with a fellow researcher, as well as his own capacity to occasionally be wrong. By the end of Season 1, we see considerable trust gained between Malloy and Naird, who develop a relationship much like we see between the ‘frenemy’ versions of Kirk and Spock in “Star Trek” (2009). Like Spock, Malloy also struggles with his own intellectual and irrational sides. The character’s thin, nebulous accent hints at his earlier Swiss education, though it might also be largely an affectation.
Surprisingly, there are generous helpings of science in this primarily comedy series; some of it grounded in firm reality, with other parts being more fanciful. The lunar EVA suits, training habitats and other hardware aren’t too dissimilar from real-life equipment under consideration (and in use) by NASA (and SpaceX) right now. But more important than the jokes and hardware are the nicely diverse and all-too human characters populating this series as well.
End Mission Report.
The entire 10-episode first season of Netflix’s “Space Force” is available for binge-friendly viewing (I polished it off in well under 24 hours). Unlike the purposelessness of the real-life Space Force, Netflix’s “Space Forces” offers some genuine laughs for these very difficult times of COVID-19 and social unrest. It’s also a way to skewer the tweet-storming, tantrum-throwing capriciousness of modern US leadership at a safe distance without having to turn on the news and aggravate anyone’s ulcers.
Once again, there’s no rulebook that says reality-based science fiction always has to be presented with a straight face.
Images: Netflix, Columbia Pictures.