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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Moonbase 8's improvisational spirit shines in its satisfying final episodes

Moonbase 8
Moonbase 8
Photo: Showtime/A24
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I’ve enjoyed the slow drift of Moonbase 8, the way its episodes don’t lock together so much as overlap. The improvisatory nature of its ensemble benefits from the show’s decision to foreground character over plot, but their weekly misadventures don’t come without consequence. In the season’s final two episodes, Cap’s hasty decision to uproot the base off of a “negative energy vortex” lands it in the path of some stampeding cattle, an absurd turn of events that epitomizes the show’s chaotic spirit. Moonbase 8 might not click like a Swiss watch, but the ways the creators yank its dangling threads always yields surprises.

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“Move The Base,” the first of the two episodes Showtime aired this week, might just be the shaggiest of the series’ six entries. It begins with Cap (John C. Reilly) receiving a heavily redacted top-secret memo from NASA informing him that Skip (Fred Armisen) is secretly a double agent for the Russian government and must be exterminated “with extreme prejudice.” Director Jonathan Krisel adopts the tense aesthetic of an action-thriller as Cap eyes his pal with suspicion, sobs in the shower, and eventually works up the nerve to shoot Skip dead. As it turns out, Skip planted the note as part of the Henai Test, a deranged show of loyalty to “the mission” concocted by his astronaut father. (Skip was forced to take it at the age of 13.) But, though he praises Cap for passing the test, he comes to resent his friend for trying to kill him. “What, are you gonna shoot me?” he yells during a petty dispute. Rook tries to heal the rift with a game night, setting up an elaborate board game called Quiz Lord that looks like a cross between Trivial Pursuit, Candy Land, and Mouse Trap. (The scene doubles as a send-up of today’s glut of overly complicated board games, as Quiz Lord throws charms, spells, bridges, forests, and Fortune of Calamity cards in with its trivia questions.)

The gang playing Quiz Lord.
The gang playing Quiz Lord.
Photo: Showtime/A24

Quiz Lord turns out to be a dud, however, and the episode takes a sharp turn when Wally, the scrapper from “Rats,” returns to tell Cap that the base’s bad feng shui can be chalked up to the magnetic field it’s been built upon. Cap, who’s proven time and again he’d rather embrace spiritual hokum over actual science, immediately recruits Skip and Rook to move it 100 yards. Skip, still burned by Cap’s assassination attempt, wants to get revenge by filming his colleague’s apparent meltdown and sending it to NASA, but decides against it after a sandstorm knocks some sense into all of them. “We’re all insane,” Cap tells him in a moment of clarity. “We’re dedicated to a mission that’s beyond our ability...but we’re going to try anyway.”

That’s about as good a summation of Moonbase 8 as you’re going to find, and it resounds throughout “Beef,” in which a group of hostile ranchers led by the great M.C. Gainey warn them the base is on their land now. They can’t simply up and move it again as a herd of cattle will be storming through in no time at all, ensuring the base will endure irreparable damage. It’s Skip who comes up with the plan to save the mission, mapping out a plan in which model rockets are fired off at strategic points to swerve the cattle around the base. It works, too. Mostly. One cow finds its way into the greenhouse, and instead of returning it the trio simply adopts it for its “fresh, hot milk.” Until, of course, the ranchers come back, guns in tow, and demand it back. (Again, the inability of our heroes to foresee any consequences whatsoever is astonishing.) The season (and, perhaps, the series) ends with NASA confirming that there’s no timetable for their trip to the moon, but that they’ve achieved the highest uniform classification, “Stratus Class Red.” That it’s clearly a bullshit designation to keep them satisfied doesn’t matter. Their victory is in being able to stay where they are, strung between space and reality.

Fred Armisen in Moonbase 8
Fred Armisen in Moonbase 8
Photo: Showtime/A24
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It’s unclear if Moonbase 8 will receive a second season, but the final shot, in which it’s revealed they’re being watched by shadowy NASA goons on a wall of monitors, is the perfect kind of tease. The idea that our heroes are rats in a lab is laden with possibility should they return, but it’s also an appropriate, if ominous, note to leave on, serving to further establish the trio as old-fashioned curios in a modern world, each doomed (?) to live out the rest of their days in a bubble of false hope.

I’d love to see the series come back, if only to keep Reilly, Heidecker, and Armisen onscreen together. Their chemistry is one of Moonbase 8's greatest appeals, as is the sense that we’re watching each of them in the process of discovering and fleshing out these characters. Moonbase 8 is at its best when it feels improvised, when a prompt—like Skip’s “What are bulls afraid of?” in “Beef”—gives way to a round of loose riffing. “Move the Base” and “Beef” were packed with these scenes, from the game of Quiz Lord to their various interpretations of “psyche-up music,” making it that much easier to forgive what can feel like haphazard plotting. But a tight narrative structure wouldn’t serve the actors or the characters, all of whom seem most comfortable when allowing gravity take them where it may.

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Stray Observations

  • Now seems like a good time to shout out the bright, playful score of Steven Drozd, who you may know from a little band called The Flaming Lips. I never once skipped the credits, due mainly to that peppy little theme.
  • As usual, the NASA briefings contain some of the funniest lines. “The urine samples we received were inadequate. Please resubmit with proper identification,” it reads at the top of “Move The Base.” I’m dying at the idea of them submitting three jars of unmarked piss.
  • I love that Cap reads “car books” and magazines like Helicopter Weekly.
  • I can’t imagine the behind-the-scenes fun of creating Quiz Lord. Its incongruous gameplay and mishmashed aesthetic reminds me of Montezano’s Quest, the fake video game from Full House that had “intergalactic wombats, power biscuits, hyper punches, trolls, and enchanted kayaks.”
  • I can’t stop chuckling at Reilly’s delivery of, “Just relax, okay, you’re not the Quiz Lord.”
  • Skip is writing a screenplay about his experience on Moonbase 8, but will be combining Cap and Rook’s characters into one. Rook would prefer he be played by Brad Pitt or Dax Shepherd.
  • “You a crescent man or a full moon freak?”
  • Thanks for reading, y’all.
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Randall Colburn is The A.V. Club's Internet Culture Editor. He lives in Chicago, occasionally writes plays, and was a talking head in Best Worst Movie, the documentary about Troll 2.