The original premise for Moonbase 8, a new comedy from John C. Reilly, Tim Heidecker, Fred Armisen, and Jonathan Krisel, was one rooted in the isolation horror of The Thing—a group of people stuck in a remote area, facing the unknown together. Like the creature in John Carpenter’s classic sci-fi film, that idea quickly took on a new form, eventually turning into a winning office comedy that laps other recent entrants in the “work-space” genre.
Moonbase 8 stars Reilly, Heidecker, and Armisen as a trio of would-be astronauts training at one of a number of NASA lunar camps in the U.S. desert. Each member of the group primarily goes by a call name—Robert “Cap” Caputo (Reilly), Dr. Michael “Skip” Henai (Armisen), and Professor Scott “Rook” Sloan (Heidecker)—save for Travis Kelce, the Kansas City Chiefs tight end who throws his weight around like they’re already on the moon. They all come to NASA from different walks of life: Cap, a pilot for scenic helicopter tours, claims to be a military man, while Skip is following in his astronaut father’s footsteps, and Rook mostly wants to spread “the Gospel of Jesus Christ out into the universe.” Kelce’s presence is tantamount to stunt casting (by NASA, not Showtime), but even he quickly finds himself out of his depth.
The six-episode season begins on the group’s 200th day of training, which is also their 200th day in relative isolation from the rest of the world. They still get regular supply drops from NASA, as well as snail mail and video calls with family, tokens of normalcy that generate friction throughout the season. The group has established their own equilibrium, dividing up professional and domestic labor, all with the goal of joining the 12 people before them who’ve been on the moon—or so they think. Moonbase 8 has a few surprises in store for its aspiring astronauts and for viewers, but, like Other Space, its driving force is the comedy inherent in cramped living situations and watching a few well-meaning doofuses work together on what appear to be high school-level science experiments.
There’s no ignoring 2020 premieres Avenue 5 and Space Force when voyaging to Moonbase 8, as all three shows follow bands of people ill-equipped to deal with the rigors of space travel, regardless of how much funding they have. But the privatization and politicization of space exploration weigh heavier on Avenue 5 and Space Force, as does an air of cynicism. An unfit crew spells disaster in Armando Iannucci’s latest for HBO, and to a slightly lesser extent, Steve Carell and Greg Daniels’ Netflix collaboration. Moonbase 8, meanwhile, swaps hubris for a sense of awe, all while keeping its feet firmly planted on the desert ground. The Showtime series is aware of the limitations of its crew; Moonbase 8’s leads are just as prone to selfishness and shortsightedness as the starship captain and military leaders of their programming peers.
When their pretend-mission is on the line, though, these three everymen snap into action, providing ample opportunity for the series leads to shine. The history of collaboration among the show’s executive producers and writers—Krisel directed many episodes of Armisen’s Portlandia, on which Heidecker appeared, while Reilly and Heidecker co-created Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule—helps Moonbase 8 clear a few hurdles early on in the season. Even when the premise feels overly familiar in the wake of similar comedies (to say nothing of all the recent space-race dramas), Heidecker, Reilly, and Armisen generate enough oddball chemistry to power a remote lunar base. Reilly brings the childish credulity that made Step Brothers an enduring laughfest about arrested development, while Heidecker once more walks that fine line between devoted and demented. As Skip, Armisen works hardest to keep the group on course, but he throws himself into his character’s bout with “space madness.” Moonbase 8 also offers a few piquant guest stars, but they can’t beat the main act.
Though the stakes are low for much of Moonbase’s first season—Cap and crew win small victories, but never seem in danger of endangering the reputation of NASA—the finale is surprisingly climactic, complete with get-psyched music and feverish communication via headset. It works as a stand-alone series, while leaving room for more episodes. And if any of these “work-space comedies” is capable of breaking from the orbit of the others, it’s Moonbase 8, despite its relatively low-budget production. The series is much more of a piece with the big-heartedness of Ted Lasso than the bleakness of Avenue 5 and Space Force—ever cognizant of its characters’ failings, but never letting them outweigh their capacity to do better.
Reviews by Randall Colburn to run weekly beginning November 8.