Given the Netflix comedy series “Space Force” is a re-teaming of “The Office” showrunner Greg Daniels and star Steve Carell in a workplace comedy with a supporting cast including John Malkovich, Lisa Kudrow, Ben Schwartz, Jane Lynch and Patrick Warburton, you could say my expectations were sky-high, maybe even SPACE high.
Mission only partially accomplished. While “Space Force” benefits from Carell’s impeccable comedic timing and his uncanny ability to play yet another character who’s often an insufferable buffoon with not a speck of self-awareness, the humor is hit-and-miss, the big-budget slapstick set pieces are mildly funny when they should be Mel Brooks funny, and the shifts in tone from farce to sincere drama are often sudden and jarring. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed “Space Force.” The roughly half-hour episodes zip by and elicit a steady stream of smiles and chuckles. It’s just with all the credentials of the main contributors, we hoped for greatness and got … pretty good.
Carell plays Mark Naird, a decorated pilot and four-star general hoping to become the Secretary of the Air Force. Instead, much to the amusement of the Chief of Naval Operations (Jane Lynch), the Commandant of the Marine Corps (Patrick Warburton) and Naird’s longtime nemesis, Gen. Kick Grabaston (Noah Emmerich), Secretary of Defense John Blandsmith (Dan Bakkedahl) tabs Naird to be the first Chief of Space Operations.
“POTUS wants to make some changes,” says Blandsmith. “He’s tweeting about it in five minutes. … Our nation’s Internet, including Twitter, runs through our space satellites. POTUS wants complete dominance, boots on the moon by 2024. To that end, the president is creating a new branch, Space Force, which Mark will run. … This is not a joke, he said ‘boots on the moon, 2024.’ Actually, he said ‘boobs on the moon,’ but we believe that to be a typo.” (Not exactly subtle in the jabs at President Trump — and yet Trump isn’t specifically mentioned in the series. It’s just “POTUS” this and “POTUS” that.)
Mark, his wife Maggie (Lisa Kudrow) and their rebellious teenage daughter Erin (Diana Silvers) relocate from D.C. to Wild Horse, Colorado, the semi-secret new home base for Space Force. (To say the adjustment is bumpy for Maggie and Erin is a massive understatement, but we’ll leave the spoilers out of it.) Save for the occasional interlude with Maggie or Erin, “Space Force” is essentially a workplace comedy, albeit on a much grander scale than “The Office” or “Parks and Recreation,” with Carell’s Gen. Naird as a far more powerful but no more competent version of Michael Scott.
John Malkovich is as entertainingly eccentric as you’d expect him to be as Dr. Adrian Mallory, the Strangelove-esque chief scientist at Space Force, who is appalled by Naird’s inability to grasp even simple physics but can’t deny the general has a certain likability and loyalty to his troops. Tawny Newsome is Angela, an African-American Space Force pilot who could become the first person in a half-century to set foot on the lunar surface and is considering making her first words, “It’s great to be BLACK on the moon.” Ben Schwartz does his hipster d-bag thing as F. Tony Scarapiducci, the social media director for Space Force. Jimmy O. Yang is the nerdy but likable Dr. Chen Kaifang. The veteran character actor Don Lake is terrific as the one-star Gen. Brad Gregory, who’s basically a receptionist for Gen. Naird but is oddly cheery about being wildly overqualified for the job.
It’s a good group of actors and they have an easy, pleasant dynamic together. Even though they’re working against the backdrop of a massive mission control and billion-dollar projects, they’re not unlike the employees of a mid-sized regional paper company in Scranton, Pennsylvania. It’s just that instead of Staples, their chief rival is China.
Diana Silvers (“Booksmart”) is a natural presence as the teenage Erin, who’s smart and beautiful but a bit socially awkward and prone to making really bad decisions, e.g., she’s dating a young Russian (Alex Sparrow) who’s working with Space Force but could be a double agent. As Mark gently points out to his daughter, it might be possible he’s dating her to get close to, you know, THE HEAD OF SPACE FORCE.
On the bittersweet side, the late, invaluable Fred Willard scores major laughs as Mark’s father, who is losing his faculties but still loves talking to his son and in particular his granddaughter on the phone. All of Willard’s scenes are just that: He’s on the phone, never in the same room with the other principal actors. And he’s nothing short of brilliant. As he always was.