When the Netflix comedy “Space Force” first aired in May 2020, everyone was in quarantine, Donald Trump was still oversharing on Twitter and SNL maintained a rapid-fire turnaround for converting his tweets into cold open material. Witnessing the pure calamity of the Trump administration became akin to watching a poorly written soap opera: every plotline coming out of left field and each somehow more ridiculous than the last. “Space Force” sought to tap into this comedic reservoir while it lasted. Yet, for a show written by the absurdity of our reality, it gave little thought beyond the pilot premise and what would happen once those two paths diverged.
“Space Force” follows General Mark Naird (Steve Carell, “The Office”), head of the newest branch of the American military, as he navigates interactions with politicians, fellow generals and scientists at the forefront of aerospace research and the media at large.
Like any of Trump’s most memorable tweets — half-baked and severely lacking in substance — I can’t help but wonder if the show would’ve been better off left in the drafts. Repetitive nods to an unnamed POTUS’s Twitter, an “angry young congresswoman” and social media manager F. Tony Scarapiducci (Ben Schwartz, “Parks and Recreation”) (yes, that does sound an awful lot like Anthony Scaramucci) ricochet off of stale jokes far too reminiscent of 2016 humor to hold any real punch. Despite having Greg Daniels (“The Office”) and Carell at the helm, along with a multimillion-dollar budget and a star-studded cast, “Space Force” has felt doomed from its inception.
Received poorly by critics and popular audiences alike, its initial release made no sound at all, which is perhaps a blessing in disguise considering how much of a disaster it was (I can count on one hand the number of times I audibly laughed and still can’t figure out how it got renewed). Unsurprisingly, the second season attempted to implement major tonal changes to the show’s focus. On the whole, “Space Force” scaled down its ambitions and resulted in a relatively mediocre workplace comedy. After the dumpster fire that was season one, there was nowhere to go but up.
The first season was far too preoccupied with poking fun at the ridiculousness of people with immense amounts of power and very little understanding of what to do with it. Naird’s distrust in science compels him to frequently ignore the counsel of scientists and stake the fate of a mission to salvage a satellite on a monkey, Scarapiducci negotiates a deal for their spaceships to use rosé-colored “Skinny Fuel” and FLOTUS designs a high fashion clothing line for their official uniforms. Aside from being cringeworthy, this form of comedy lost its appeal as soon as Trump left office. Frankly, nobody wants more jokes about tweet typos or the preposterousness of America’s frighteningly real annual military budget of over $700 billion.
At only seven episodes, the second season underwent literal and figurative “budget cuts.” It shed some of its outdated content, featuring far fewer Trump references and only a handful of racist jokes directed towards Chan (Jimmy O’Yang, “Love Hard”), but it still had one too many Russia/China military propaganda plots for my liking.
With less of a dependence on Carell’s star power, the weight of the show gets distributed evenly amongst the group dynamic. It’s less of Naird juggling scenic interactions with a bunch of minor characters and more so a collective team led by him. The ensemble scenes play to its strengths with Dr. Mallory’s (John Malkovich, “The New Pope”) sporadic outbursts or Erin’s (Diana Silvers, “Booksmart”) teenage woes, but remain far and few between.
The scenic scope also shifted from centering around a grand military base to an ordinary workplace, a setting co-creator Daniels is familiar with. There’s a reason “Parks and Recreation” takes place at the local government level or “The Office” at the regional branch of a paper company. Daniels himself has proven time and time again that the mundane work environment meshes well with the familiar monotony of the sitcom realm, something the show could still further embrace. Placing characters in high-stakes situations with a legitimate air of graveness and responsibility to their roles tends to stifle the comedic capacity the writing offers.
To put it simply, “Space Force” is still trying too hard and not in an earnest way, but in a “sucking the air out of the room with every attempted joke” kind of way. Because despite the fact that season two is leaps and bounds better than the season one, it’s still so utterly underwhelming. “Space Force” is rather like the “Skinny Fuel” it tries so desperately to make fun of: It rapidly burns up the immensely talented cast and budget at its disposal only to find itself at liftoff no more than a few feet above the ground.
Daily Arts Writer Serena Irani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.