In one of the best visual gags from the first season of Space Force, the new Netflix comedy from co-creators and former Office-mates Steve Carell and Greg Daniels, Four-Star General Mark Naird (Carell) returns to the brutalist command post of the United States Space Force, the military pet project of a (never named) commander-in-chief. A decorated pilot who survived being shot down over Bosnia while serving in the Air Force, Naird is returning from a spell in a lunar habitat simulation, where he finds every last spaceman under his command (“Air Force has ‘airmen,’ Space Force has ‘spacemen’” he says in an earlier scene) wearing the flamboyant, marching-band-in-a-Vegas-floorshow uniforms pushed on them by an eager first lady. (She is never identified by name either.) Naird allows the capes and the headpieces and the oddly suggestive piping to swirl around him, until he steps onto the elevator and declares to his personal assistant, One-Star General Bradley Gregory (Don Lake), “You will get rid of those uniforms by tomorrow.” Naird may be a man of decisive action, but the joke carries on until after the elevator doors close.
Carrying the hardened exterior of the career soldier, Naird strains to suppress emotional expressions of any kind. But they still slip out, most often in the high-decibel vocal eruptions that have been a Carell hallmark since his divinely guided meltdown at the anchor desk in Bruce Almighty. But he also has a secret release valve for all the work-related and post-traumatic stress he’s carrying around: quietly singing goofy top 40 hits to himself.
The first season of Space Force gives the first head of the military branch devoted to protecting American assets in Earth’s orbit (but also tasked with getting “boots on the Moon” by 2024) plenty of cause to give these muffled, personal recitals. They’re the show in a nutshell, the moments when all the geopolitical stakes and martial sternness in the world can no longer hold back the supreme silliness of a government operation whose name and branding give off the impression of taxpayer-funded Star Trek cosplay. Much of the season revolves around Mark and his troops fighting for legitimacy, beset by skeptical legislators, an Air Force chief hostile to Space Force’s very existence, and the other nations who’ve established a significant lead over the U.S. in the new space race. The show takes Naird and his mission seriously enough that the punchlines aren’t entirely unflattering uniforms, launchpad accidents, or headline-grabbing snafus—but those are often the sources of its biggest laughs, like a cutaway during an argument about the relative pittance Space Force didn’t spend on plastic button covers for its mission control panels.
The core competency on display makes those stray moments of absurdity so satisfying—but might also hold Space Force back from being all that it can be. Daniels has cited Dr. Strangelove as an inspiration, but its satirical jabs are never that pointed. Nor is the first season entirely successful as a workplace comedy, with a tendency to foreground the spectacular nature of what these characters are working on over how they work together. And as amusing as episodic plots about war games and viral-publicity-stunt animal astronauts can be, the scenes beyond Space Force HQ are littered with lackluster plot threads—even in the span of 10 episodes, the show never figures out what to do with Naird’s defiant teenage daughter, Erin (Diana Silvers).
In spite of all that, Space Force almost never fails as a delivery system for talented funny people doing their thing. The cast is the comedy equivalent of the Mercury Seven, a crew bearing the unmistakable fingerprints of casting director Allison Jones. Carell and Lisa Kudrow (as Naird’s wife, Maggie) are the big draws, but the premiere tosses out ringer after ringer, some cashing in on scene-stealing turns elsewhere: Ben Schwartz as slick head of communications F. Tony Scarapiducci (the “F” stands for “Fuck”—it’s not a compliment), Tawny Newsome as ambitious spaceman Captain Angela Ali, Jimmy O. Yang as second-in-science-command Dr. Chan Kaifang. And those are just the series regulars, an ensemble bolstered by a joint chiefs of staff that includes Patrick Warburton and Jane Lynch; Lake, Michael Hitchcock, and the late Fred Willard (in his final television appearance) following Lynch over from Christopher Guest Land; Veep veterans Dan Bakkedahl and Diedrich Bader; appearances from Kaitlin Olson, Chris Gethard, Aparna Nancherla, Jessica St. Clair, Punam Patel—if they cracked you up on an Earwolf podcast sometime in the past decade, odds are they’re on Space Force.
It’s an interesting move, then, to pit Carell against two actors who can do comedy, but aren’t necessarily known for it. Noah Emmerich tears out Stan Beeman’s soul and replaces it with Biff Tannen’s bullying swagger in the role of Kick Grabaston (this show really has a way with names), Mark’s old Air Force boss and current contender for control of Space Force. But Naird is more regularly at odds with Dr. Adrian Mallory (John Malkovich), the dapper chief scientist draped in withering condescension. (He is, in a sense, Space Frasier—but not that Space Frasier.) One of the simplest joys of Space Force is watching the give-and-take between Carell and Malkovich, their characters bristling while the actors take turns playing the subtle notes and carving off a little ham.
Theirs is the one relationship the show really locks in on, to a finer degree than some romantic developments that crop up later in the season. Their ongoing debate over humanity’s purpose among the stars is the heat that powers Space Force, Naird arguing that the U.S. needs to protect itself and its interests from the other countries that are already up there, Mallory countering that there are no countries in space—just infinite opportunities for research and learning. Shouting at each other from across the atrium that houses their offices, they boil things down thusly: “Not everything is World War II!” says Mallory. “Not everything is Vietnam!” Naird retorts. There are comic weak spots to be found in each position, but Space Force never articulates Naird’s as convincingly as Mallory’s. Maybe that’s the creators tipping their hands. Maybe that’s just the byproduct of science being a tougher target to lampoon at a time when the public can’t even agree on the benefits of wearing a mask in public to slow the spread of a dangerously infectious virus—let alone the consequences of turning geocentric orbit and the Moon into new territories for waging economic and military combat. (Geez, talk about tipping your hand.) It’s a huge idea to take on, and Space Force might not be built to support it.
Bigness—be it the weight of a theme of the sheer number of stories being serviced in an episode—is generally where Space Force falls short. Carell, Daniels, and their team have taken some impressively giant leaps, but it’s the small steps that land: the particulars of Naird and Mallory’s working dynamic, Schwartz doing social media attention-hog shtick in the gallery during a congressional hearing, or the Space Force base snack cart that’s dubbed Meal Armstrong’s (formerly Orion’s Melt, formerly Area Fifty Yum). There’s tremendous silliness in Space Force, but it doesn’t slip out often enough.