Greg Daniels (The Office US) and Steve Carell’s successful return to TV? If only. Sam Brooks reviews the abysmal first season of Netflix’s Space Force.
It’s pretty much indisputable: The Office is one of the most beloved television shows of its generation, and perhaps one of the most beloved shows of all time. After a shoddy first season, it managed to find its own identity, far away from its UK counterpart. Whereas that show was full on workplace satire, dark-hearted and bloody-minded, the American version ended up having a shit-ton of heart, barrels full of laughs and a cast of characters that audiences grew to love. Key to its success was Steve Carell as Michael Scott – the incompetent boss consistently caught between trying to be a cool boss but also trying, though not all that hard or successfully, to be a good person. The show turned him into a star, and he repaid the show by turning it into a phenomenon, the kind that companies spend $500 million to get the rights for.
That’s why Space Force is a big deal. Not only is it Steve Carell’s return to comedy (after a flinty, unnerving stint on The Morning Show), it’s also the high-profile return of The Office creator Greg Daniels – although it’s worth noting that he co-created Amazon Prime’s Upload, which debuted earlier this year to much less fanfare. With this platonic power couple, along with a fully stacked supporting cast (John Malkovich, Lisa Kudrow, Ben Schwartz, the late, great Fred Willard, among others), how could the show fail?
Well, quite simply: by not being funny. Like, at all.
Based on the concept, it should’ve been an easy success. It’s another workplace comedy, but rather than the low, relatable stakes of, say, a paper sales company in Scranton, it’s set at the newly instituted Space Force (a real-life military branch established by Donald Trump in 2018). Carell plays General Mark Naird, the stubborn and barely competent chief of space operations, who is trying to make the new branch a respectable and successful branch of the US military. Workplace antics ensue, sans laughter.
The problem, right from the start, is that Space Force is never sure whether it’s a workplace comedy or a satire. Workplace comedies need a strong ensemble to connect with, and there’s not a single character here that the audience can get onboard with. Naird lacks the one thing that made Michael Scott bearable: a heart. He’s just straight up a dick. None of the other characters are developed enough to make up for its unlikeable protagonist either, despite actors like Malkovich and Schwartz doing their damndest to make their shallow caricatures shine. The show is even worse when it comes to its women; there are only two, Naird’s daughter Erin and Naird’s chauffeur-slash-pilot Angela, with anything approaching the show’s idea of depth, and they’re mostly relegated to the role of being sounding boards for the men.
The other thing workplace comedies need is something to relate to. The stakes of Space Force are too high and too arbitrary to care about. It’s very hard to buy into Naird’s struggle to make the new branch successful, because we don’t care about Naird, and the show itself thinks the organisation is a joke. We don’t care if he succeeds, and none of his successes seem to really matter either. The interpersonal plotlines are more interesting, like a slow-burning relationship between Angela and one of her co-workers, but they often take a backseat to the deathly uninteresting struggles of Space Force, and if the show isn’t interested in the humans who populate it, why should the audience be?
So it’s a failure as a workplace comedy, but it’s even worse as a satire. The show’s premise is basically an SNL sketch – what if an incompetent man ran a seemingly useless but expensive branch of the US military? – and it’s never clear whether it’s targeting bureaucratic incompetence, the very idea of a space force, or some vague concept of American politics. It’s worst when it comes to the last one; it’s apolitical in a way that isn’t neutral, it’s conservative, the kind of lazy both-sides equivocation that isn’t just unsatisfying to watch, but boring. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the show seems disinterested in anybody onscreen unless they’re the deliverer of a joke or the butt of it, which robs the show of any soul the actors might try and give it. Satire doesn’t necessarily need soul; Veep ran for six seasons with neither heart nor soul, and did it successfully because it was unapologetically savage towards what it was making fun of. Space Force can’t even rouse itself up to find a target, let alone jokes to throw at it. That flat neutrality is amplified by the show’s dull visual style; it looks and feels like pretty much every Netflix Original film, to its detriment.
Even Carell is bad here, wildly miscast as Naird. He’s a tremendous actor, and it’s easy to forget that the brilliance of Michael Scott wasn’t in how he played that character’s bullish ignorance, but in the little flashes of humanity when he realised that he was wrong or had genuinely hurt one of his co-workers. Naird has brief moments like this, and when Carell actually gets to play them, he’s beautiful, like in a conjugal visit with his wife (Kudrow, spinning straw from well… worse straw), or in his awkward, fleeting interactions with the space force’s structural engineer (winningly played by Jessica St. Clair). But for the most part he’s left barking lines and grimacing, forced to play an attitude rather than a human. It’s a performance that could work as a cameo, but it’s not enough to hang an entire show on.
It’s perhaps unfair to compare Space Force to The Office. That show was the perfect storm; the right show with the right cast at the right time. It’s the kind of success that is half talent and half good fortune. After all, there was a very real chance that the show might not make it past that abysmal first season to grow into the beloved gem it eventually became (let’s not speak of the James Spader season, though). What’s not unfair is to compare Space Force to literally any other comedy. There was no chance of it being as beloved as The Office, but there was a very good chance of it clearing the low bars of “being funny” and “having jokes”. There’s every chance that this show could improve to meet and even clear those bars for the inevitable second season – it’s not exactly lacking for talent – but what’s not guaranteed is an audience who will actually stick with it after this laughless mess of a first season.
You can watch the first season of Space Force on Netflix.