When Netflix announced its upcoming sitcom from Greg Daniels (The Office, Parks and Recreation) starring Steve Carell (The Office, The Big Short) as the newly-instated commander of the newest branch of the United States Armed Forces, the Space Force, it seemed like a match made in heaven. Daniels and Carell are both best known for the US version of The Office, so fans were hoping that sitting Carell in the boss’s chair of another workplace comedy would be something of a spiritual sequel. This is very much not the case in Space Force; the show channels VEEP and Silicon Valley much more than it does Parks and Rec or The Office, but maybe that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
For any non-Americans out there, the Space Force is real; last year, President Trump created the fledgling sixth branch of the military to “Protect United States Interests in space.” Jumping on the opportunity to satirize such low-hanging fruit, Daniels and Carrel worked together to pitch Space Force as a part-workplace sitcom, part-political commentary. One of these aspects works better than the other one, and surprisingly it is the workplace sitcom part of the equation that falls apart, while the satirization of the current administration provides the bulk of the intelligent comedy.
Carell’s character, four-star general Mark Naird, is assigned to move to Colorado and run the newly-created Space Force. Uprooting his wife (Lisa Kudrow – Friends, The Comeback) and teenage daughter (Diana Silvers – Booksmart), the no-nonsense General attempts to run a frankly ridiculous yet serious organization continually on the brink of losing funding. John Malkovich (The New Pope, Birdbox) plays Naird’s Chief Scientist, the pacifistic Dr. Adrian Mallory, stealing the show with his dry wit and careful timing. Accompanied by the wonderful as always Ben Schwartz (Parks and Recreation, Sonic the Hedgehog) as his PR guy, Jimmy O. Yang (Silicon Valley) as a top scientist and Tawny Newsome (Bajillion Dollar Propertie$) as an ace pilot, Carell leads this gang of lovable misfits into the space age with impeccable grace. So why doesn’t it work half the time?
Put very simply, The Office is about a ridiculous man running a boring work environment. Space Force is about a boring man running a ridiculous work environment. The Office works so well because it captures that scene of the 21st century American workplace that so many of us are familiar with. Everyone knows that if you have enough people in your office you’ll find a Dwight or two hidden among the Pams. Look around your office – if you don’t see an Andy, you’re the Andy. Everyone has a Toby. Etcetera, etcetera. Dunder Mifflin is a relatable place filled with relatable people forced to do the same ridiculous thing many of us are every day – sit at a computer for eight hours, type away and don’t let the stuffiness of your cubicle get to you. Space Force is just about as removed from relatable as you can get – it might as well be the USS Enterprise for all the real-life connections I can make to space travel.
The workplace comedy of Space Force falls apart because I will never be in a situation where I need to argue with a coworker about where to land our moon rover, or use the wrong percentage of jet fuel in my test launch. My boss is never going to interrogate me about the space programs of foreign nations, or make me run laps for making goofy jokes. And that’s fine – plenty of workplace comedies get away with doing outlandish, surreal things that no human would ever experience (30 Rock comes to mind), but the reason it works is because they lean into it. Space Force attempts to keep up the facade of “isn’t this so relatable!” while discussing very serious geo-political ramifications of utilizing different soil types on the moon base.
The political commentary angle, however, feels like a breath of fresh air after weathering the Trump Administration. The SNL skits and Late Night jokes about Trump became tiring after about a year, and I personally tuned out because nothing they came up with was more ridiculous than reality. Space Force is reminiscent of VEEP in the way they handle Trump, keeping him off-screen and only referring to him as POTUS while having him directly involved in the insanity of the day-to-day. Nothing that Trump does in Space Force feels too insane, even when we find out that he ordered a chimpanzee with ten rifles to be launched into space, never to return, or that he Tweets constantly about how much bigger our rocket ships are than China’s. It’s believable, it’s on the nose, it isn’t trying to be subtle. Even if you’re sick of Alec Baldwin’s Trump impressions, you’ll find plenty to laugh at as Space Force brings to light just how stupid everything has become.
I will be honest, I had a lot of trouble sympathizing with Mark Naird. He’s a brutally serious, deadpan man who neglects his daughter constantly (the show does call this issue to light) and lives and breathes his work. His wife, Maggie, spending the entire season in prison for an unspoken reason didn’t do much for me in the way of developing their family dynamic. Ben Schwartz is not used to the best of his abilities until he is paired with Malkovich in a later episode, and I can’t help but feel that the two should have been subplot-mates a bit more often. Angela and Chan’s relationship, which felt the most natural of any on the show, should have started developing earlier on to give it more time to breathe. The “Council of Six” of the other military leaders meets only three times, and powerhouses like Jane Lynch, Diedrich Bader and Patrick Warburton aren’t given nearly the screen time they deserve.
All of these reasons are why Space Force doesn’t quite work as a workplace comedy. If you come at it as a viewer in pursuit of a crude yet intelligent parody of the current Presidential Administration, you’ll have a much better time than if you’re looking for a spiritual sequel to The Office. Space Force will not be a timeless classic. It will not be #relatable. There will be no Buzzfeed Quizzes on which cast member you are. But that’s okay. Nestled alongside other high-production, high-talent political parodies like VEEP and Curb Your Enthusiasm, there is plenty of room for Space Force. It’s not going to be what you wanted, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
Nirav recommends Space Force for fans of VEEP, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Silicon Valley. Those looking for a follow-up to The Office or Parks and Recreation should look elsewhere.