‘For All Mankind’ Season 2 Jumps Into the ‘80s for More Inventive Alternate History

Apple TV’s “For All Mankind” faces a common challenge when alternate history shows go into a second season. Now that the experiment or premise was presented and explored, what’s the point of keeping it going? The series premiered in 2019, when Apple TV was releasing its first batch of high-budget content to firmly plant a flag in the streaming wars. Its idea is a fascinating one: What if the Soviets had landed on the Moon first? Suddenly the classic imagery of Cold War America became twisted around, set in a world where we were not number one. Season two time jumps from the ‘60s into the ‘80s, beginning with a slow burner tone where the space race material takes a back seat to personal crises.

So how does “For All Mankind” rewrite the age of the mullet and early VHS? A long opening montage confirms Ronald Reagan still made it to the presidency, but other events like the assassination of John Lennon and the Iranian hostage crisis were averted. Even Roman Polanski was arrested this time. Up in space the Jamestown Moon colony has expanded into a larger project, where astronauts welcome the sunrise while crooning in unison the lyrics to Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” Here on Earth some of the astronauts from the first season have settled into bureaucratic life at NASA. Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) now runs missions and plays golf in his office. Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt) has also risen and is now director of the Johnson Space Center. When the situation gets tough she’s the one the army contacts when Reagan puts everyone on DEFCON 4. Others are not faring so smoothly. Gordo Stevens (Michael Dorman) is still in a state of psychological limbo after having spent so much time in space. It gets worse when his ex-wife Tracy (Sarah Jones), goes on TV and announces she’s newly engaged. But they can’t avoid international events when a solar flare hits the Moon and a mission is proposed for a U.S.-Soviet handshake in space between astronauts and cosmonauts.

“For All Mankind” returns just in time when the world is celebrating the Mars rover Perseverance landing. The first images of this new season are crisp, grandiose Moon shots similar to what we’ve seen in recent movies like “First Man” and “Ad Astra.” Even the music has an organ-tinged sound that seems to wink at Hans Zimmer’s score for “Interstellar.” Before the show goes into dramatic slow burner mode, there’s some classic space race suspense when a team led by Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger) on the Moon is struck by a solar flare. The consequences are two-fold. Cobb loses a teammate and is left with mental aftershocks, while on Earth the U.S. once again comes close to nuclear war with the USSR. It’s the kind of sequence this show has always excelled at with its pristine special effects. Later this season the issue of militarizing the Moon and how to arm astronauts will also be raised by the narrative. 

As with the first season, what works best in this series is the angle of reimagining the past. There’s more fun with CGI work this time around in giving us “Forrest Gump” moments. John Lennon calls on Reagan to “get back into bed, grow your hair” to promote peace and Tracy announces her engagement on Johnny Carson. During the solar flare crisis there’s a documentary-style insert of black and white photos of Reagan, with a pitch-perfect fictional recording of him asking if the flare incident will be used by the Russians to attack. Creator Ronald D. Moore, a veteran of several “Star Trek” shows and “Battlestar Galactica,” is back as producer and makes sure there’s a high attention to detail. While the history is bogus, we still learn neat little things like how to keep track of your radiation levels in space. 

But like season one, the weaker moments are the ones when the show pretends it’s also a very somber, serious personal drama. Alternate histories work best when the personal combines with the imagined, larger narrative. The best recent example is HBO’s brilliant “The Plot Against America,” about a Jewish family in 1940s New Jersey suddenly living in a fascist America. “For All Mankind” has to keep finding ways to keep its episodic style going, so it spends vast amounts of time away from space with domestic dramas on Earth. The performances are excellent and the writing is not bad at all, but how invested a viewer becomes will depend on how much they love this show. Moments ring with strong authenticity, like Ed and wife Karen (Shantel VanSanten) now running a white picket fence life. Karen even runs The Outpost restaurant now. They have adopted a Vietnamese girl, Kelly (Cynthy Wu), who is college-bound. Gordo is basically a mess and Ed is his support system, watching the poor guy sit on street corners, disbelieving that Tracy is getting remarried. More significant is a storyline involving Ellen Wilson (Jodi Balfour), who has to keep her lesbian identity in the closet since the Reagan era is still the Reagan era in this show.

But for those who soldier on through the slow burner drama, when “For All Mankind” gets imaginative about what if’s involving its alternate timeline, it can get very engaging. Eventually space shuttles are equipped with missiles, and armed military astronauts will bounce around the Moon humming Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” That always relevant theme of the battle over natural resources returns as Americans and Soviets have a standoff over a lunar zone containing rich deposits of lithium. There is an elegance to the imagery here, mixed with exciting moments that look like what Trump’s people were pondering when launching Space Force. And of course there’s talk about a planned mission to Mars. For sci-fi and space buffs this is ecstatic material and it is pulled off well. 

“For All Mankind” has already been renewed for a third season, which means the numbers Apple is seeing must be pretty decent. It remains a well-produced experiment that works as an intriguing premise. Because every episode is an hour long (if not a little more), making it through some of the down-to-earth drama might be a chore. But the space sequences are so engaging they stand on their own. Maybe that’s where the fast-forward function will come in handy. Generally this series does drop at the right time, when again we look up to the heavens as the world continues to wobble on its axis, and wonder when we will really go back. 

For All Mankind” season two premieres Feb. 19 with new episodes streaming every Friday on Apple TV+.