There were reasons to get excited about Netflix’s newest comedy Space Force. It reunites Greg Daniels and Steve Carell for the first time since The Office, arguably the greatest comedy of all-time thanks in large part to Daniels’ vision and Carell’s iconic and hilarious portrayal of Michael Scott.
Now they are taking on something much larger, almost interplanetary in scope and based on Space Force the real thing. It isn’t a total leap into the comedic considering this “branch of the military” can’t even get their website HTML to look correct, which doesn’t portend to promote intergalactic dominance. So the fake thing is a joke, but the real thing kind of seems like a joke as well. It should work as a show, but Netflix’s Space Force series is disappointing.
Space Force is described as a “workplace comedy” which would appear to be right in Daniels’ wheelhouse considering his work on The Office and subsequent creation of Parks and Recreation. Here they substitute a paper supplier and a local government office with a deeper dive into military machinations. But there are clear differences in those shows and what’s happening with Space Force.
Those shows cast (at the time) relative unknowns to fill the major roles. Space Force on the other hand is a veritable all-star team of talent both in the main cast and among the supporting characters. Besides Carell (who needs no introduction) John Malkovich, Lisa Kudrow, Ben Schwartz (Jean-Ralphio, among my all-time favorite bit part characters), Jimmy O. Yang, Jane Lynch, Patrick Warburton and Fred Willard (his final acting role) all make appearances. It’s an ensemble cast of stars.
The first Space Force episode “The Launch” is directed by Paul King and co-written by Daniels. Carell thrusts us into the world of General Mark R. Naird (Carell) who has just been given four-star general status which places him at the very top of the military pecking order, and in his mind, on the path to heading up the Air Force. But things turn quickly when he’s informed that won’t be his command. Instead, he’s going to lead, at the direction of the President, who leads through tweets (it’s implied this is Trump), the newly formed Space Force.
Fast forward a year and we are on the morning of the group’s first launch. It’s a day filled with starts and stops as nothing is going right in Naird’s world. He’s at odds with his chief scientist (Malkovich), can’t understand his social media head (Schwartz), might have a Russian spy in his midst, is “separated” from his wife (Kudrow), has a rebellious teen to manage, a dad (Willard) with dementia, and there’s a congressional group flying in for the momentous occasion. It’s a fast-paced episode with Steve Carell even sometimes actually running from place to place on the base.
Conceptually, I think there’s a lot of comedy to mine in Space Force. Basing it in the “real world” was probably the correct approach and there will be plenty of chances to dig at the current administration if that’s your bag.
The problem is that the Space Force pilot episode lands flat. Some of this has to do with the pace of the episode. Daniels’ previous work offered workplace glimpses into insular surroundings and left a lot of chances for viewers to take a breath and acclimate to the environment. At their core they started slow and steady, giving us a chance to get to know the main players and what made them tick. Neither bit off more than it could chew and instead picked a few characters (mainly Carell and Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope) to hone in on as they introduced their world.
Space Force, to start, takes a completely opposite approach. Daniels and Carell choose to move Naird almost everywhere in the first 36 minutes of the show. We are introduced to a pretty big ensemble cast but given only a minute or two with each character. The mile-wide, inch-deep approach left me not caring about any of them. This isn’t to say a season’s worth of material won’t turn that around, but our first look into the world of Space Force didn’t lend itself to “wanting more”.
And then there’s Steve Carell, who works hard to pull off the military look and approach. He’s a fantastic comedic actor, among the best ever, but the rigidity of the military especially considering his rank might be a bridge too far. It just feels so distant from what he’s great at comedically that I almost had an uncanny valley reaction to seeing him in this role.
In the end, Daniels and Carell have such robust comedic resumes that they deserve the benefit of the doubt. It means tuning in for a few more episodes to see if the kinks are worked out but the pilot episode simply wasn’t good or even all that funny. It’s discombobulated in a way that I think the creators realized that plays out in a standalone musical number with Naird two-thirds of the way through. Like something of an admission that they piled too much in too soon. Because Netflix’s Space Force series struggles to get off its own proverbial launchpad and I’m not sure how long viewers stick around even with the goodwill Daniels and Carell have built up over the years.