Gaming

The Ars verdict is in: Space Force is the best new series of 2020 (so far)

Earlier this week, Ars Senior Space Editor Eric Berger explored the space-tech accuracy of Netflix’s new series Space Force. Now that its first season is in its entirety, the Ars culture section split up the duties of reviewing its fun, humor, and watchability. If you’re looking for a TL;DR: We all like it for different reasons, and we think it’s a sharp comedy in ways Ars readers will both appreciate and be surprised by. We’ve managed to leave everything below mostly spoiler-free, with the exception of a couple of jokes and plot points used to clarify our opinions.

Returning to TV comedy for the first time since The Office wrapped seven years ago, Steve Carell plays a general assigned the unenviable task of founding a new military branch in the new Netflix comedy series Space Force. And the Ars staff verdict is in: the series is a winner, eminently bingeable, and our favorite new show of 2020 so far.

Created by Carell and Greg Daniels (who also created Parks and Recreation and the new comedy series Upload), Space Force was inspired in part by the Trump administration’s announcement that it would establish a national Space Force. The impressive cast also includes John Malkovich (The New Pope), Ben Schwartz (Jean-Ralphio from Parks and Recreation), Jimmy O. Yang (Silicon Valley, Crazy Rich Asians), Noah Emmerich (The Americans), Lisa Kudrow (Friends), and Jane Lynch (Glee, Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), among others.

Carell plays four-star general Mark Naird, a decorated pilot with dreams of running the Air Force. But his dreams for promotion are dashed when he is tapped instead to lead the newly formed sixth branch of the US Armed Forces: Space Force. Ever the good soldier, Mark uproots his family and moves to a remote base in Colorado where he and a colorful team of scientists and aspiring “Spacemen” struggle to meet the White House insistence on getting American boots on the Moon (again) by 2024, to achieve total space dominance.

Real stuff, real straightforward comedy

Part of what I, a Scrantonite, loved about The Office is how it mined comedy from the mundanity of everyday life. And part of what I love about Space Force is that Greg Daniels seems to have applied a lesson from those Dunder Mifflin days. In this show, many (many) laughs come from the absurdity of our current moment being played off as mundane.

The pilot alone contains an astonishing amount of this dynamic, as Daniels has plucked genuine details from NASA, private space, and the current administration and just plopped it into the script—no punchline commentary needed. (The show is very much not Veep and not interested in politically conscious comedy; you’ll notice someone in particular is only referred to as POTUS.) Mark Naird (Carell) disses his four-star general rival Kick Grabaston (Noah Emmerich) by referencing bloated government contract bidding. He has to clarify his passionate “Boots on the Moon” recruitment pitch by noting he means American feet in boots, “can’t be certain where the boots are made—could be Mexico, could be Portugal.” And at the meeting that kickstarts the series, the secretary of defense tells the assembled Joint Chief leaders the info they’re about to receive will be tweeted within the next five minutes.

The most on-the-nose political parody this show offers comes from an AOC-inspired congresswoman focused on cutting down overspending, but Space Force largely doesn’t want to hammer any one particular person or group in DC. Instead, Daniels and co. use the real world’s most unreal details—an insistence on reaching the Moon by 2024, the struggle to brand Space Force from uniforms to terminology (“Air Force has Airmen, Space Force has Spacemen—nothing comical about it,” Naird says)—to ground the absurdity of this office place and these characters.

Of course, it makes sense that this Space Force would need a dedicated social media pro who can explain to Naird how to dunk on fast food brands on Twitter. And naturally there’s an assigned Russian Cosmonauts representative to help forge a better working relationship between these two “friendly” space collaborators (“Your president has asked for good working relations between the US and Russia,” Yuri (Alex Sparrow) tells Naird. “C’mon, we’re not China here?”).

As Ars’ Senior Space Editor Eric Berger hinted earlier this week, perhaps the best (and saddest) realization of this “real detail as comedic straight man” ethos is John Malkovich’s Dr. Adrian Mallory, chief scientist for Space Force. Again and again, he deadpans scientific advice and analysis for the various situations and decisions facing Space Force, and he’s almost universally dismissed initially. “As a scientist you have a loyalty to reason, which makes you a little untrustworthy,” Naird tells him. Clearly, the world of Space Force had reason to march for science, too.

Without any spoilers, Naird and the Space Force do occasionally come to the light and recognize the value in rigorously informed and researched science and in evidence-based decision-making. Given how much this show mines out of facts, I suppose the writers’ room wanted to remind us the most fun new show of 2020 is still, in the end, fiction.

Nathan Mattise, Features Editor

New heart, from a certain comedian’s inspirations

Netflix was keen on establishing Space Force‘s comedic credentials with a January 2019 announcement that hinged on the US version of The Office. With the trumpeting of names like Greg Daniels, Howard Klein, and one of those funny Steves, Netflix set fan expectations accordingly.

The resulting series doesn’t waste time forcing those expectations to drop and give 20. Instead of a multi-camera, mockumentary format that hinges on cringe, Space Force pulls its cameras back in dramatic fashion and tells different kinds of comedy stories: about family, bureaucracy, and overcoming the odds.

One Space Force quality you’ll recognize from a series like The Office is its focus on bumbling fools, to which I say, big whoop. That’s like being surprised when a new romantic partner tells you that they, too, like pizza. Then again, Carell’s latest bumbling fool lands somewhere that, on paper, sounds like a middle manager in Scranton, Pennsylvania. General Mark Naird has been appointed to lead an upstart, lower-rung US military division, and while the series is gracious enough to give his division a one-lower punching bag for comedy’s sake, he’s otherwise set up to be the under-equipped dope, always chasing something that resembles success.

Space Force spreads its supporting cast out quite differently, which gives Carell a little more room to work with as a believable military leader. The series’ other major dopes, including an obnoxious “social media manager” (Ben Schwarz), a shameless Russian spy (Alex Sparrow, Lifetime’s Unreal), and an all-but-useless secretary (Don Lake, Best in Show), are firm reminders that Naird has gotten this far in part because of his endless well of patience on the way to the top.

But their comic relief pales compared to Naird’s required work alongside legitimately principled and invested people, including a lead engineer who has the timing and input of your average Ars reader (Jimmy O. Yang), a young captain who is equal parts eager-to-please and over-her-head (Tawny Newsome, Brockmire), and the scene-stealing John Malkovich as Dr. Adrian Mallory. These cast members do a great job reminding Naird about the logical and reasonable ideas that audience members might yell at the screen while he otherwise takes a brash, brute-force approach to putting more Americans on the Moon.

Without a fake documentary crew to acknowledge and break the fourth wall with, Carell’s comedy chops go in a different direction: the self-deprecating genius of Bob Newhart. Carell’s general stews in his mistakes. He lets long pauses pass while the reality of his blunders sets in, before offering “wait… wait… now” kinds of punchlines (sometimes as whispers, sometimes as screams, always pitch-perfect). And Malkovich is equipped to play along with these pauses, sometimes killing with kindness. When a reporter asks Naird what makes their working relationship function, Naird replies, “Trust. [pause] And mutual respect.” Mallory waits a beat, then adds, “Certainly, trust,” with a gentle nod.

Newhart’s comedy stylings always felt like an odd fit for his TV era’s constant laugh tracks, so it’s delightful to see his model of dry, deadpan comedy land in a series that makes sense for his perspective: optimism and persistence through the natural stumbles of life… just, you know, cranked up to 11 when lives, budgets, and chimpanzees are on the line.

Sam Machkovech, Tech Culture Editor

Listing image by Netflix

Everything Avenue 5 should have been—and more

Space-based comedy is having a moment in 2020, what with HBO’s Avenue 5 earlier this year and now Space Force on Netflix. Both boast impressive writing pedigrees: Armado Iannucci (Veep) for the former, and Greg Daniels (Parks and Recreation) for the latter. Both feature a talented ensemble cast, including big-name TV stars (House‘s Hugh Laurie for Avenue 5, Carell for Space Force), as well as premises ripe for pointedly satirical humor. But while the former never quite found its comic footing, Space Force won me over straight out of the gate with its wickedly sly humor, absurdist set-ups, and unexpected heart. In short, it’s everything I wanted Avenue 5 to be, and more.

Confession: I was never a big fan of the mockumentary narrative style of The Office, although that sitcom definitely had its moments. Mercilessly cringe-inducing humor has rarely been my thing. So I was pleased to discover that Space Force‘s approach to comedy is that of a precision scalpel carefully sheathed to avoid inflicting too much damage with its cuts. There’s an underlying warmth and affection for all these fallible characters trying to do something extraordinary, making us root for them even as we laugh at their pratfalls. One would expect nothing less from the creator of Parks and Recreation, which had a similar vibe.

The ensemble cast all deliver terrific performances, especially Jimmy O. Yang as lead engineer Dr. Chan Kaifang and Tawny Newsome as Angela Ali, who together develop an unlikely budding romance. (The scene where they “car-dance” to K-pop is a brief throwaway moment of delight.) There are scene-stealing brief appearances from Jane Lynch and Patrick Warburton as chief of Naval Operations and commandant of the Marine Corps, respectively, as well as Fred Willard, who died earlier this month, as Naird’s rapidly declining father with dementia.

Naturally, Carell is the anchor as head of the fledgling Space Force as General Mark Naird, who repeatedly endures any number of humiliating predicaments but shoulders them all with an admirable stoicism and surprising moments of grace. Bonus: he lets off steam by humming pop songs; one of my favorite scenes in the pilot is Naird singing and dancing alone in his office to “Kokomo” by the Beach Boys. That’s one way to deal with all the stress.

And as my Ars colleagues have all pointed out, “Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich.” Fresh off a critically praised turn on HBO’s The New Pope, John Malkovich shines like a supernova as Dr. Adrian Mallory, a committed pacifist, passionate about his science, working for a military operation (“Space should be a zone of wonder, not of conflict and death”). His languid acerbic wit and genteel sophistication are the perfect foil to Carell’s tightly wound, rough-around-the-edges, everything-by-the-book general, who feels deeply but keeps those feelings bottled up, as a good soldier should. Their unlikely friendship, forged in the fires of a nigh-impossible task, is the heart and soul of the series.

Jennifer Ouellette, Senior Writer

Laughing through the tears

For someone who spends most days thinking and writing about space and space policy, Space Force is simultaneously highly entertaining and painful. I mean, it’s funny. At times during the show, I howled. And there are vivid snippets of reality throughout the series that capture the state of play in modern spaceflight. But this show takes those pieces and scrambles them madly. Weird, jarring details emerge throughout the series—space nuts will scratch their heads at the odd array of model rockets behind Naird’s desk in his office—that suggest the producers of Space Force ultimately cared little about the details.

Oh Berger, you’re such a nerd. And it’s true. Most of the public won’t catch these details. Nor will they care that chimpanzees are performing spacewalks or that the interior cabin of the crew spacecraft going to the Moon is about as big as my house. None of this is plausible, but it serves the plot, and it’s often damned funny, so it’s fine.

The show gets some details shockingly right. It portrays China as America’s major rival in space, and this is accurate. China has not yet surpassed US spaceflight capabilities, as is suggested in Space Force. However, China is building a credible and stable program that will see development of a modular space station in a couple of years, and it’s working toward putting humans on the Moon in a decade or so.

The bottom line is that Space Force exists at the very edge of real-world spaceflight. While we’re laughing, I hope we’re also thinking about how we go into deep space in the coming decade.

Eric Berger, Senior Space Editor [Adapted from his longer essay on the show]

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