The premise of Space Force sounds perfect for a workplace comedy. An inherently ridiculous endeavor created by absurd person (“the newly formed sixth branch of the US Armed Forces”) is to be carried out by seemingly qualified people. Mix in the usual problems and pitfalls of government work and you have plenty to mine for laughs. The problem is that the show’s real world inspiration actively hurts the series. Donald Trump’s presence (he is only referred to as POTUS) looms over everything, and it’s not funny when the president is making rash, stupid, petty decisions on the show because it’s just a reminder of what life is actually like. How much you do or do not enjoy being reminded of who occupies the Oval Office will determine whether you laugh or cringe at certain jokes and scenes.
Similarly, one character is clearly based on Nancy Pelosi. Another is obviously Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. There’s also a Russian spy who is—get this!—close to the president. Ha! That’s funny to think about, right? Every time these characters appear on screen, it pulls you out of the show. Space Force isn’t a fun escape when it hews close to the real world; it’s a slog.
That might not be as much of a problem if the show had any idea what it is or wants to be. At certain points it feels like biting satire, others complete farce. Sometimes the show is super silly and surreal, and other times it feels like a straight comedy. That inconsistent tone makes it so that you never know what you’re watching or what you’ll get from scene to scene, episode to episode.
Contributing to the show’s inconsistent comedic voice, Steve Carell’s General Mark Naird is whatever the script needs him to be in the moment rather than a consistent character with clear motivations. He mostly seems highly competent and upstanding, but occasionally he acts like a total idiot. Is he a wise military leader who trusts his scientific advisers or a meathead?
The cast’s standout performances include those from Ben Schwartz, Lisa Kudrow, Don Lake, and the late Fred Willard. Jimmy O. Yang and Tawny Newsome are also delightful. John Malkovich is, to the surprise of no one, fantastic, though his role might be the most overqualified casting of a part ever. He doesn’t get to do very much for most of the season except be the serious adult scientist in the room.
But despite a fantastic cast, some funny scenes (everything with the Joint Chiefs of Staff for example), and genuine pathos thanks to meaningful interpersonal relationships, there’s really not a single great episode in the batch of ten. At 30 minutes long or more, Space Force‘s episodes are too long. Even the funniest scenes can drag and feel interminable. Some episodes are downright boring and you’ll forget about them the second they’re over.
The single biggest issue is that overall, it’s not that funny. But is there promise here? Absolutely. Space Force would be dramatically improved by cutting a lot of fat, and it won’t be a surprise if a second season manages to find its groove and the show ends up being great. There’s a lot of talent and pedigree at work here. Despite the inevitable comparisons, Space Force doesn’t have to be “The Office in space.” It just has to be a lot funnier—and a lot less timely—if it ever wants to lift off.
Featured Image: Netflix
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike, and also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.