This is the official Bright Rock Media Space Force review. Space Force is a new comedy on Netflix starring Steve Carell, John Malkovich, the woman who played Phoebe on Friends, Jian Yang from Silicon Valley and featuring several recognizable character actors. Jane Lynch, Ron’s neighbor from Office Space, that Senator from Veep who always made his assistant talk about his balls.
The premise of the show is that Steve Carell’s character gets promoted to a 4 star general and is given command of the new branch of the US military, Space Force. As you know if you frequent this site, I love space stuff. I think space exploration and colonization is probably the #1 most important sector for technological innovation in modern times, not only because of the romance of space, but also because of the impact all the technologies being developed for space travel will have on Earth.
So, this show is clearly up my alley, and on my radar. I want to compare it to Avenue 5, which I did see but did not review, due to laziness and lack of strong feelings. But it’s in about the same category of show. It’s not a smashing success that demands further expansion, like The Good Place or Silicon Valley, but it’s not so bad that it invites derision or heavy criticism. That’s probably the biggest issue with the show overall, is that it’s just forgettable.
The show has a variety of strengths and weaknesses that combined to give me mixed feelings about the overall experience. What should have been a show about space travel and exploration I felt far too often strayed into political commentary that would be more at home in a show like Veep. Episodes chronically had these political subplots and topical political commentary that just seemed out of place for this particular show.
I’m going to give you an example, it’s going to be kind of out of left field, but I think it’s pretty apt. If you happened to see Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, during that movie there are a few characters who randomly start talking about the alt right and other political topics, and it’s just extraordinarily out of place in the context of that movie. The same sort of thing happens here.
Moments that could have an element of purity and humor just went out of their way to make a lame Trump reference or a very thinly veiled wink-wink topical political parody character. It’s not only that it feels out of place, it’s also that it feels forced and the execution was bad.
Even if this injection of political parody worked within the context of the show, compared to Veep, it’s just whack. It’s not well done. It’s too obvious, and the jokes are bad. The reason I referenced that Knives Out thing above is because it feels self-indulgent of the writers’ worldview more than it feels funny or makes sense in the greater context of the show.
And one of the reasons that this injection of politics stands out so much in this show is that the show has a tremendous lack of focus. What is the backbone of this show? Is it that the political process and government bureaucracy is wacky? Is it that Steve Carell’s daughter feels abandoned and alone? Is it the commentary that the military is overly flooded with machismo? Is it the rivalry between the US and China? This show is all over the place.
I keep bringing up Veep, but there’s a good example. Here’s what Veep was mocking: politicians are corrupt, stupid, self-centered narcissists who live in a bubble of wealth and sycophancy. 7 seasons of Veep, never deviated from that. This show struggles to find its balance across a mere 10 episodes.
There’s also just something that’s subtly off about the way the show is filmed. It lacks comedic timing, for one thing. And I don’t mean that in terms of the actors’ performances, I mean that in terms of the editing. The editing doesn’t feel snappy. Tons of bits just drag on way too long, milked dry and then some. Every episode feels like it it’s stretched for time.
And I think part of the reason it feels like that, in addition to the editing itself, is the sound design, or lack thereof. Aside from one extremely forced, random, unfunny attempt at physical dance comedy, and one less random, more successful kpop car dance, there is a dearth of audio in this show. It’s to the point that it almost feels like watching an unfinished cut.
Remember The Office? I bet you can remember the song, and the audio stingers that happen throughout each episode. Space Force just has so many moments of like… absolutely no sound happening whatsoever, for no reason.
Let’s talk about the actors for a minute, because those were the best part of the show. The actors and the characters were pretty compelling. Unexpectedly, the most likable and successful character of the show is Jimmy Yang’s Dr. Chan. His developing relationship with Captain Ali, played by Tawny Newsom, is probably the best part of the show overall, even if it’s only a small part of it.
John Malkovich and Ben Schwartz also deliver great performances, although I felt Ben Schwartz was underutilized and not challenged to leave or adjust his bread and butter Jean Ralphio schtick. John Malkovich played the straight man for the most part, whose central conflict was that his commitment to science and vision for space as a uniting force was at odds with the militarization of space.
I have to admit I didn’t much care for Steve Carell’s character. There are aspects of it that were interesting. The boy scout-esque nature and accompanying naivete, for example. It’s just that I didn’t find the character to be terribly funny, nor did I feel he provided the heart the show so obviously desperately wanted him to embody. Altogether, I found his incompetence stretched my suspension of disbelief.
This is not Michael Scott who failed his way to the top of a regional paper sales office in Scranton. This is supposed to be a four star general in the US military. It just seemed like the character’s overall level of stupidity and incompetence stretched my suspension of disbelief too far.
Lisa Kudrow’s character was pretty funny, although she represented yet another aspect of this show’s utter and complete lack of focus. I can see the brainstorming session now. “Okay guys, we’re going to make a show about SPACE FORCE, no bad ideas guys, what’ve you got?” “I hate Donald Trump,” “I like Orange is the New Black, can we shoehorn that in there somewhere?” “What if we dedicate an entire episode to parodying a combination of Elon Musk and the Skinny Girl CEO from Shark Tank?”
There’s a character in the show whose only qualities are: southern accent and borderline retarded, which I thought was not only low hanging fruit but also combined with all the political stuff to make this show at times feel more like a vehicle for the worldview of a Hollywood writer’s room than an actual show with fleshed out and thoughtfully crafted characters ala The Office, Veep, Silicon Valley or any of the other shows I’ve been comparing this show unfavorably to throughout this review.
The whole show feels like a first draft.
There are a few moments that are really good, and memorable. Jian Yang and Captain Ali kpop dancing in the car. The monkey and the dog in space. John Malkovich and Ben Schwartz interviewing contractors. But those moments were completely outnumbered by moments that were forgettable, lame and just plain dragged on way too long. The mock moon battle was an entire episode dedicated to something pretty stupid, for instance.
Speaking of that moon battle, it brings up something else that bothered me about this show. In that mock moon battle, they totally missed an opportunity to really showcase how cool future tech like those Raytheon exoskeletons can be.
It missed so many opportunities to show off cool future tech that I kind of have to assume the writers don’t know anything about cool future tech and have no interest in it, which you’d think would be kind of a requirement for writing a show so heavily invested in future tech. John Malkovich’s character had one single solitary moment in the show that kind of gave a glimpse into what this show could have done on a regular basis.
At a hearing on Capital Hill, he explains the significance of a climate satellite that would increase the warning times for natural disasters, saving thousands of lives. Space tech is full of that kind of stuff.
Zero-G 3d medical printing that can print healthy tissue and organs impossible to produce on Earth. Space manufacturing & materials science for low latency fiber-optic cables. Food science for advanced hydroponics and 3d printed meat that could eventually feed hundreds of thousands of people on Earth at low cost. Geoengineering, communications technology, the list goes on and on.
The show missed all these opportunities to showcase what makes space so exciting in favor of just stretching out a cheap, lame “lol space force” throwaway tweet for 10 episodes, padded with a disjointed rogue’s gallery of random characters and plotlines.
In a nutshell, here’s what I’d say about Space Force. Great cast. The whole thing feels like a rough draft. I liked Avenue 5 better.
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