'Space Force' Just Might Be the Jim to Netflix's Pam
Starring Steve Carell, John Malkovich, Lisa Kudrow, Diana Silvers, Ben Schwartz
Published May 25, 2020Is there anyone who doesn't have The Office in their 'recently watched' queue? Its evergreen popularity on Netflix in the seven years since it ended is something of a phenomenon, one the big red N must be sorry to see end come January 2021, when NBC's Peacock acquires the rights.
Space Force, the latest Netflix workplace comedy starring Office lead Steve Carell, is obviously meant to pre-emptively fill this absence. With John Malkovich on board as well, and Greg Daniels (Parks and Recreation, King of the Hill and, of course, The Office) heading the writer's table, there's a lot to be excited about — and, thankfully, the first season largely succeeds, although it's not without faults.
At its best, the writing is excellent, but it's frustratingly inconsistent, with the undercooked storylines of the supporting cast often the worst offenders. There are pacing issues as well, and not every character is as funny as they try to be, but the premise has a lot of potential. When it all comes together, you feel like Space Force just might be the Jim to Netflix's Pam that the service is desperate for.
The show takes place almost entirely in the Colorado desert, at the headquarters of the newly created U.S. Space Force, headed by Carell's General Mark R. Naird (Malkovich plays Dr. Adrian Mallory, his head of science). Much of the first season is given over to Naird justifying the existence and funding of his fledgling corps; "How does a Space Force benefit my Brooklyn constituents on food stamps?" asks an obvious Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stand-in at one point.
While its federal-level milieu and sprawling ensemble cast is reminiscent of HBO's Veep, and its intra-departmental squabbles and references to policy minutia hint at Daniels's time working on NBC's Parks and Recreation, the military setting feels fresh. It's a pleasure to see Carell and Malkovich trade lines, the no-nonsense military perspective of Naird immediately butting up against the more cerebral worldview of Mallory, who laments the lack of a PBS feed in the control room and eats roasted pheasant from a decorative wooden dining tray while everyone else has the daily cafeteria slop. Not exactly ground-breaking comedic ideas, but they're executed well, and listening to Mallory explain the difference between a uniform and an ensemble, or fly off the handle over not having access to his bath salts, is worth the price of admission. Carell frankly seems less comfortable as General Naird, affecting a raspy army voice that he applies unevenly throughout in a clear bid to distance the character from the spectre of Michael Scott (which admittedly does hover over the proceedings somewhat), but it's not enough to derail things by any means.
The supporting cast, made up of various other Space Force, employees doesn't fare quite as well however, with storylines that often just aren't interesting or funny enough to stay invested in. Some characters are annoying in and of themselves, like Ben Schwartz's F. "Fuck" Tony Scarapiducci, which is basically just his Jean-Ralphio character from Parks and Recreation on steroids (if that seems possible). Two of them will often get slapped together for the duration of an episode under manufactured pretences, in the vague hope of some kind of comedic alchemy that never occurs, and the meet-cutes that happen between some of them might as well be happening in deep space given their lack of sparks.
There's also an entire family aspect to fit in, with Lisa Kudrow and Diana Silvers as Naird's wife and daughter, the latter stuck in a mopey, fish-out-of-water role that culminates in a rushed final episode "crisis" that would have garnished the cutting-room floor nicely. And why is she dressed like some grunge fan from 1997 and saying words like "narc"? In one risible scene she swoons out of nowhere over a pristine Mercedes Maybach S 560 (all that's missing is a price tag and a link to the website), running her hands along its curves in covetous awe, and the disconnect between her alleged desire and her amateurly sketched anti-establishment character is laughable for all the wrong reasons. The whole scene is depressing.
Luckily Carell, Malkovich, and the main storyline are never more than a few minutes away, and when Space Force is good, it's definitely more than good enough, whether you're a fan of The Office or not. It needs some tightening up, and a more even-handed joke policy, but it's been too long since we've seen Carell grace the small screen to harp on issues that plague many a show's first season — and teaming him up with Malkovich was a stroke of genius. This is a generally successful launch.