Steve Carell and John Malkovich Strut With Subdued Laughs in Netflix’s Cosmic Farce ‘Space Force’

Netflix’s “Space Force” feels like yet another comedy where real life punches harder. It is a sitcom poking fun at the idea of the U.S. jumping back into the space race with its own cosmic military branch, a notion that is not fiction in this Trump era for anyone following the news. You expect this to then be a wicked satirical ride, or at least offer some biting wit. Instead “Space Force” is just a regular sitcom. 

Steve Carell plays the hyper patriotic General Mark R. Naird, who in the Colorado desert is tasked with running the government’s new Space Force department. Naird has to oversee the usual tasks you would expect like launching new satellites, preparing Moon colonization and making sure rivals like China don’t steal U.S. technology. Also overseeing the project is Dr. Adrian Mallory (John Malkovich), a well-dressed intellectual who quietly shows off his mental superiority. The rest of the team in charge of trying to get Space Force going includes wacky media manager F. Tony Scarapiducci (Ben Schwartz) and Dr. Chan Kaifang (Jimmy O. Yang). As the team tries a vast array of experiments and planned launches, there are also personal hassles to deal with. Naird’s wife Maggie (Lisa Kudrow) has to leave the picture for a serious reason and so the general is left alone at home with rebellious daughter Erin (Diana Silvers). The pressures only mount as a whiny president (POTUS) in the White House keeps making demands and wanting fast results.

From its first episode till the last of this first season, “Space Force” never feels as if it aims to be anything more than very simple, quick laughs, some which fall flat. There’s not much of a running plot or thread, every episode is like a short story unto itself. Aesthetically it is a very good-looking show however. Carell co-created the show with Greg Daniels, who has also helmed the U.S. take of “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation” and recently Amazon’s quite witty take on a techno afterlife, “Upload.” For “Space Force” there is a glossy, clean look to the cinematography that feels at home in offices and labs. Yet the writing and performances are just as stale. 

To be sure there are some good laughs in “Space Force.” Episodes function more as collections of small gags. A satellite launch is ruined by a Chinese super ship’s intervention, which then prompts mission control to trust in a chimp left floating in a space station to try and fix the situation. Naird also spends time at a desert base meant to simulate a possible Moon colony, but everyone at the simulation is grumpy and stuck eating nothing but potatoes. The closest “Space Force” comes to outright political satire is when Naird and the team keep hearing from an angry “POTUS,” which is an obvious crack at Trump. Even POTUS’s wife, “FLOTUS,” who we also never see, sends over uniform designs which scream tacky. 

But a lot of the humor also has the tinge of feeling like throwaway jokes. Some are too on the nose. When India gets ahead of the U.S. with rocket technology Naird and Mallory go on the hunt for spies, at one point badgering the very American Dr. Chan with lines like “some people are more loyal to their continents.” Erin is woefully underused. She just sits at home, bored without friends and begins selling ice cream at the Space Force base, eventually locking eyes with a soldier who has a condition depriving him (literally) of an imagination. But her story arch with Naird never truly takes off, the same goes for Lisa Kudrow’s hilarious Maggie, who at one point finds herself in jail with braided hair (“it’s not cultural appropriation if they did it to you”). The rest is all gags after gags. Some are infantile but entertaining, like Naird leading his Space Force trainees in an air gun battle with Air Force opponents, or Naird’s habit of singing oldies to himself when dealing with stress. John Malkovich steals the show in a scene where a private song telegram to a lover from Mallory is screened for all of Mission Control. 

Some of the acting feels as constrained as the humor, as if there’s something bolder and more wicked aching to overcome the show’s tame attitude. You can sense it in Carell’s Naird, who is never allowed to explode into a glorious satirical character. John Malkovich pulls off the demeanor of a humorless scientist who just stares at Naird and once in a while lets out a bit more emotion. Malkovich is now a fashion designer and there are scenes where his threads are more entertaining than the dialogue. Surprisingly enough the best performance probably belongs to Ben Schwartz as the absurd media manager unafraid of doing absolutely anything to please everyone and ascend. He even tries to give FLOTUS’s uniform schemes a chance.

“Space Force” features some fantastic talent and a chuckle or two, but it should be bolder and edgier. In these times we do not need tame humor, we need comedy that reaches for the stars with the unhinged attitude of the very personalities it mocks.

Space Force” season one begins streaming May 29 on Netflix.