First seasons are bad. Let’s get specific: first seasons of sitcoms are bad. Okay, it’s not universally true, but it’s a pretty good rule of thumb.
The first season is where the writers stumble though moving from their big concept to the day-to-day reality of how their characters, and the actors portraying them, interact. Say, remember Mark in Parks and Rec? No? That’s because he was unceremoniously jettisoned after 2 seasons when it became apparent that his role had been superseded by a combination of Rob Lowe and Adam Scott. These are the types of natural progressions that take place before a sitcom hits its stride. What tends to mark out a grower is when a sitcom in its early episodes takes a couple of daring punts and almost lands them.
Greg Daniels's second streaming comedy in two months, Space Force, is a sitcom very much in its first season. But does it take those punts?...Eh. Sort of?
Newly promoted 4-star general, Mark Naird is expecting a big jump up the ladder. He has his eye on the Air Force, the institution to which he has given the best years of his life. But the unnamed commander-in-chief has other ideas – the just-created bid for cosmic dominance: The United States Space Force – and Naird is tasked with putting boots on the Moon by 2024. American boots…well, American feet in the boots, Naird admits, “We don’t know where the boots will be made. There are still bids coming in for the boots.” Unfortunately, the combination of a shorted budget, unrealistic deadlines, the Chinese government, and that pesky thing called science all conspire against Naird’s best efforts to make a success out of this new branch of the armed forces.
...one of the best cast line-ups for a comedy in recent history
Space Force is blessed with one of the best cast line-ups for a comedy in recent history: stars Steve Carell and John Malkovich are joined by Ben Schwartz, Jimmy O. Yang, Roy Wood Jr., Lisa Kudrow and Tawny Newsome as series regulars. The draw of Daniels and Carell working together again after their astronomical success with The Office is also enough to pull in some serious star power for guest roles. The writing too, is hard to fault. Steve Carell and Greg Daniels have worked together to create some interesting central roles and fun, if not hilarious, sparring dialogue between them.
So, it’s not that any of the components are bad or that the show, as a whole, is executed with anything less than total competence…it’s just that competence and working components are a very long way from ‘funny’. Instead the show trades in heartfelt character beats (many earned, even more unearned), rather than trying to make the audience laugh.
Early on in the season, General Naird gives a warning to his team not to get political, a manifesto that the show largely adheres to across its ten episodes. There’s an argument that says this is the smart move: jokes about the Trumps are ten a penny and can be written by any fourteen-year-old with political semi-awareness. Added to this is the fact that nothing comedy writers can invent will even come close to the real-world cockamamie whims of the Twitter obsessed 45th POTUS. This means the show can focus on its strength: the cast dynamic. And that’s what it does. Mostly. These 10 episodes lay the groundwork for some character growth both funny and heartfelt – again, emphasis, unfortunately, on the latter. The counter argument here, of course, is that by rooting for these characters' success, we begin to unconsciously legitimise those same real-world cockamamie whims. It’s a fine line that’s walked and Space Force comes down just on the right side of satire…but it’s satire without any bite. Daniels has mentioned Dr Strangelove in his influences in creating this show, and that’s evident in its red-tape depiction of the armed forces, but there’s little more than a couple of big laughs to be had across the ten-episode run. That’s not a very favourable comparison.
...competence and working components are a very long way from ‘funny’
To be clear, there’s a lot in the show that works. Carell successfully brings his brand of pent-up absurdity to the General and his moments comforting himself by singing 60’s pop are a nice touch; Malkovich’s consciously detached performance is...well, he’s John Malkovich, he’s great; Jimmy O. Yang is a guy whose star could stand to rise a lot more and it’s gratifying to see him given a strong supporting role. Tawney Newsome is also a delight throughout as the aspiring captain who cringes at her new designation: ‘Spaceman, first class’.
The fourth episode “Lunar Habitat” is the show’s strongest and a microcosm of the season as a whole. It’s a really enjoyable succession of jokes bound up in smart visual nods to 2001 and The Martian, as well as an opportunity for Carell and Malkovich to do their respective thing with some fun nonsense. But it’s all underpinned by some underdeveloped family dynamic old hat.
It’s a great example of what Space Force has is in common with Daniels’ other recent project, Amazon’s Upload: a strong central pairing - the antagonistic friendship between Carell and Malkovich is the source of many of the show’s most enjoyable moments. What it also has in common is a gallery of almost totally neglected supporting characters. The show clearly has no idea what to do with Naird’s imprisoned wife (Lisa Kudrow) who flounders through the season making stale jokes, or his misfit daughter (Diana Silvers) who dutifully enacts her role as a teen tearaway cliché.
First seasons are bad, but with the show’s pedigree and talent, it’s a smart bet to say Space Force will be back with a much better second season. For that reason, it’s worth a look. Sadly, for now, it joins the postponed SpaceX Dragon launch, in a week of slightly disappointing space related events.
(Anyway, it's all nonsense, everyone knows the Moon landings were orchestrated by Obama as an inside job and the Moon is just a hologram projected on the skydome over the flat earth by the illuminati and - NO BUZZ ALDRIN, DON'T HIT ME AGAIN!)
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