Review: Steve Carell's workplace comedy 'Space Force' barely achieves lift-off
Courtesy of Netflix
To this day, “The Office” – years after it aired its final episodes – continues to entertain generations old and new alike. Riding the Netflix wave, it was the first sitcom to get a boom of fans in the streaming age. Before “Tiger King” or “13 Reasons Why,” the Greg Daniels workplace sitcom put Netflix on the map and now with the forthcoming streaming wars taking shape with many casualties (such as “The Office” leaving the popular streaming service in 2021 for NBCs own Peacock) – innovation is key in the age of fresh content. So it’s no shock to anyone that Netflix would stay in business with the creative team whose show helped them profit considerably, and with multi-million dollar deals in place, no expense has been spared when it comes to “Space Force,” a workplace comedy (in the vein of “The Office”) that envisions how Donald Trump’s own proposed branch of the Air Force would look if it were headed by a buffoon.
Re-teaming Daniels with Steve Carell would seem like a slam dunk, as this is the brain trust behind the most popular comedy of the 21st century, but sometimes lighting doesn’t strike twice and in the case of “Space Force'' it barely achieves lift-off, delivering a handful of laughs over the course of its ten 30 minute episodes. It whiffs of a show that knows it’ll get recognition because of its name, and to its credit Carell and Daniels don’t try to mimic the mockumentary style “The Office” popularized, but it tries to be its own thing and the results are lazy and mixed. A strong supporting cast of Ben Schwartz, Patrick Warburton, Jane Lynch and John Malkovich make up for the script and Carrell’s relative shortcomings.
It’s a bummer, because the premise is built on a solid foundation: When Donald Trump announced that he was going to make a Space Force, heads turned around the world and memes began circulating like wildfire. It was only a matter of time before some bright Hollywood executive would foster the idea into reality, and Netflix’s “Space Force” never gets a lid on its style or substance.
Carell plays Mark Naird, a four-star and decorated general who's just been given the role of a lifetime: head of the Space Force division. Much to the bemoan of his colleagues, Naird is entrusted with seeing that POTUS’ (it should be noted, Donald Trump’s name is never stated, but his likeness is heavily implied) aspirations come true. Fast forward one year, and the Space Force base is up and running with the aurora of an amusement park (if you want to stop for a quick bite, “Meal Armstrong” has got you covered). Equipped with a crack team, including a persnickety marketing guru obsessed with Instagram and Twitter gimmicks F. Tony Scarapiducci (Schwartz) and Dr. Adrian Mallory (John Malkovich) – the straight man who calls it like it is and often keeps Naird’s unorthodox antics in check - their goal is to be the first country with a base that can house soldiers on the moon. Easier said than done.
Carell, whose taken a hiatus from the episodic format in lieu of more dramatic works on screen akin to “Foxcatcher” and “Battle of the Sexes,” “Space Force” represents his return to comedy and you can tell he’s brushing the cobwebs off, especially during those first couple episodes where he’s trying to characterize who Naird is going to be, which, by the end, is just a deep voiced and stereotypical general who thinks assault rifles work in space.
Further demonstrating “Space Force’s” struggles to sustain its 10-episode arch, the second entry of the season follows a chimp named Marcus and a pooch in space trying to repair a shuttle. Literally a dog and pony show. Why does this take place? Because the president thought it would go viral. Admittedly, it’s funny watching Carell run around like the building is on fire, but watching the episode over again, the laughs feel scarce and the material thin.
Not to mention there are about a dozen subplots that slowly start to mold over the show’s first season: there’s the inevitable congressional hearings where Naird is questioned on the budget logistics of Space Force; there’s an episode dedicated to Space Flag – a laser tag training module designed to show combat on the moon; Narid’s daughter, Erin (Diana Silver from “Booksmart”) strikes up a courtship with a dull private and has to deal with other tacked on family issues (her mom played by Lisa Kudow has some skeletons in her closet). At least “Space Force” features Fred Willard in what will probably be his final on-screen role as Naird’s dementia riddled father and his presence now holds more weight and, not surprisingly, scores big laughs.
“Space Force” isn’t a total bust, because as often as Carell screams and bickers with his advisors, eventually one jab or insult hits its mark. Like an improv robot that doesn’t know when to quit, Carell shows in later episodes that his comedy roots aren’t totally lost, he just needed to harness them. But the real scene stealer belongs to Malkovich who upstages Carell in almost every circumstance, meanwhile Schwartz feels like he’s on autopilot (a subplot about what he’s getting the president for his birthday is a one note joke that goes on about ten minutes longer than it needed).
Still, “Space Force” comes at a time when audiences could use a bit of laughter and self-care. Mostly, the comedy is harmless and skates by on the charm of its ensemble cast (Don Lake deserves a shout-out for playing assistant Brad). Even if it doesn’t quite achieve the astronomical heights suggested by its wacky premise, there’s enough fuel in the tank to help the inaugural season coast on fumes.
But it could be tough to recruit cadets for a second season.
All ten episodes of SPACE FORCE will premiere on Netflix starting Friday May 29th