The first moon landing looms large in American history as a vital landmark of innovation national pride, and even the evolution of news as entertainment. The country, and likely the world, simply wouldn’t be the same without it — which is exactly what “For All Mankind” is banking on.
As imagined by Ben Nedivi, Matt Wolpert, and “Battlestar Galactica” executive produer Ronald D. Moore, Apple’s new period drama opens with NASA and the world staring on in shock as a Soviet mission beats the United States to the moon. That single twist unspools a complicated alternate history of U.S. astronauts and politicians alike scrambling to keep up as the Soviet Union laps them on space exploration. Of the original series launching Apple’s streaming TV service Monday, “For All Mankind” is by far the strongest, especially because it makes the most of its budget and subsequent capacity to dream a bit bigger than most. Its production and costume design evolve to fit the changing times, and its handsome direction shines brightest in space. The writing has some shaggy tendencies, as could probably be expected of a show this ambitious. It occasionally entertains a few wry winks to the strange new historical possibilities on this hypothetical timeline, and even indulges in some distracting fictional Nixon tapes revealing the depths to which he might have gone to save face. For the most part, though, it makes the smarter choice to keep the drama as grounded in character choices as possible, with some key overarching “what if?” scenarios that keep the season moving toward a bold new future.
The ostensible anchor of the series is Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman), a Navy pilot turned astronaut haunted by the fact that his Apollo 10 mission was mere feet away from beating the Soviets to the moon and changing his timeline in what he believes would’ve been a more daring direction. The first couple episodes closely follow him, his doting wife Karen (Shantel VanSanten), and assorted ground control employees like stalwart boss Deke (reliable secret weapon Chris Bauer) and laser-focused Margo (Wrenn Schmidt) working overtime to speed up their operations and dissolve the debilitating new chips on their shoulders. Several chapters in, “For All Mankind” does start to feel caught in a loop: the Soviet Union keeps beating NASA to milestones, the White House keeps forcing NASA to respond, NASA keeps redoubling its efforts. The series’ overall trajectory for its characters ultimately comes down to Neil Armstrong’s first words on the moon, which “For All Mankind” revises in a particularly pointed way. “We had a rough start,” he says with a laugh, “but we decided to pick ourselves up and get back to work.” As so they all do — over, and over, and over again.
Soon enough, however, the show reveals itself to be a workplace drama above all else, and a fairly sharp one at that. In the world of “For All Mankind,” female astronauts become a presence at NASA far earlier than in the real world, causing ongoing ripples of change. These characters, each distinct in their own ways, jolt the series with a necessary shock of narrative energy. Standouts include Sarah Jones as Tracy, the restless wife of Ed’s partner in space (a very good Michael Dorman), Krys Marshall as Danielle, a consummate professional and NASA’s first black woman astronaut, and Sonya Walger as an ornery facsimile of Geraldyn Cobb, a very real pilot whose chance to become one of the United States’ first female astronauts was dashed when NASA unceremoniously ditched her program. All experience workplace sexism in different and equally infuriating ways, though it’s a shame that “For All Mankind” seems less equipped to deal in depth with how Danielle would have to withstand the unique and perpetually difficult intersection of both sexism and racism as a black woman. (It makes some attempts, and an occasional subplot about a Mexican teenager immigrating to Texas with stars in her eyes for the cosmos implies that the show isn’t actively shying away from race — but at least in the first season, the show moreso sticks to sexism in the workplace, period.)
That’s part of why some of the best moments in “For All Mankind” come as the characters’ definitions of “patriotism” become more nuanced, complicated, and sometimes downright cynical. The toxic weight of American exceptionalism hangs heavy in the air throughout the season, and the show’s own stance on it is murky until deeper in the season as the costs of taking huge risks — both personally and politically — erode some characters’ once unshakeable faith in their mission and country. And yet, per the show’s own conjecture, the forced hyper-competition of staying in the space race does, in fact, inspire progress and advanced innovation in a way our reality still hasn’t quite reflected. Do those ends justify the often ruthless means? “For All Mankind” isn’t always sure — but it’s undeniably compelling to watch it try to figure it out.
“For All Mankind” premieres November 1 on Apple TV Plus.