There was, clearly, no expense spared in the making of “Space Force.” Imagining what a Space Force branch of the military might actually look like outside the bounds of President Trump’s imagination (though the show never mentions him by name), the new comedy is a splashy flex of Netflix’s powers. It boasts the co-creator team of Greg Daniels and Steve Carell, whose smash hit “The Office” gained an almost more successful second life when it hit Netflix and won over a whole new generation of TV fans. With Carell at the center of its orbit, “Space Force” features an all-star cast including Lisa Kudrow (of Netflix’s other onetime rerun hit, “Friends”), John Malkovich, and even the late Fred Willard in the bittersweet role of Carell’s ailing father. Its sets are expansive and slick, gleaming and pristine. Every episode brings new familiar faces, stellar production design, and the kind of confidence that only the total support of a network can bestow. For all the heft behind it, “Space Force” should be an easy win. Ten episodes later, however, it’s safer to say that “Space Force” is really just okay.
In his first regular comedic TV role since Michael Scott, Carell plays Mark Naird, a newly promoted four-star general who immediately has to prove his worth by making Space Force a workable reality. Mark is either a meek rule obsessive or an arrogant blowhard depending on what any particular scene feels like indulging, but Carell gives him a strange gravelly growl of a voice throughout. While trying to keep Space Force afloat and his head scientist Adrien Mallory (Malkovich) happy, Mark’s also struggling to keep his home life in one piece now that his daughter (Diana Silvers) is miserable in their new town and his wife (Kudrow) is out of the picture. Having him split between his professional and personal worlds makes sense; the ways in which his personality weaves between them doesn’t. For every glimmer of Carell’s deft timing and empathetic acting, there are several more bewildering character notes that keep Mark, the series’ ostensible anchor, floating out of reach.
Given its creative team, it’s not altogether surprising that “Space Force” is at its best when letting its workplace dysfunction take over. As a jock Air Force general, the typically stoic Noah Emmerich is having a blast as Mark’s outsized jerk foil. Jimmy O. Yang’s turn as an underling scientist gets a boost from his dry delivery, and is especially good as he gets more time with Tawny Newsome’s Angela, a down to earth captain determined to make her mark. Carell’s never better than when opposite Malkovich, as compellingly weird as ever in an otherwise meek role. Even when the show’s jokes aren’t particularly sharp, its performances always are. (Bonus points are in order for Chris Gethard, who taps in as an unhinged janitor whose eye twitches inspire bigger laughs than his punchlines.)
But when “Space Force” tries to go bigger or more inspiring with its plot, it buckles under the weight of its own ambition. It creeps along as the branch makes vanishingly little progress before suddenly lurching it forward to land on the moon. Its pieces of political satire are both too literal (as when a young liberal congresswoman named “Anabela Ysidro-Campos,” played by Ginger Gonzaga, gives Space Force’s hell in a hearing that evokes an “SNL” cold open) and too dated (Mark’s annoying communications manager, played by Ben Schwartz, is “Tony Scarapiducci,” or more colloquially, “Fuck Tony” as in “FuckJerry,” I guess?). And like it does with its supposed hero, the show swings wildly between finding the idea of Space Force both ridiculous and inspiring. When it finally does land on an idea, it does so with conviction, but without much of a foundation to support it.
After watching the whole first season, it’s hard to say what kind of story or comedy “Space Force” is trying to be. This kind of identity crisis isn’t unique; most freshman comedies need a bit to settle into their grooves and ultimate intentions. Still, given the talent and enormous machine behind it, “Space Force” should by all rights be better than “fine.”
“Space Force” premieres May 29 on Netflix. (10 episodes; all reviewed.)