Recently I was in a bookstore, where I overheard one employee making fun of another’s embarrassing taste in comedy. “So you have like, a dumb sense of humor,” she said, “This is really revelatory.” The TV show she thought was so laughably bad was Broad City. Her coworker weakly tried to defend what some might call The Best Most Important Comedy I Can Currently Name Particularly When, Like Now, I Am Dumbed with Rage by How Smug This Store Clerk Was, but the girl stopped him. “I watched the pilot?” As if she had minored in Bevers Studies at NYU. “So, I got it.”
I think we can all agree, as reasonable human media consumers, that we should not be able to judge a show by its pilot (and also that the pilot of Broad City is great, and that that store clerk is probably now dead from her own self-satisfied wrongheadedness, having walked directly into traffic because she thought she knew where she was going but thanks). In many later-great cases, shows can’t even be judged by their abbreviated first seasons – the first six Offices, the first six Parks and Recs, even the first five Seinfelds. When comedies are heavily character-based, reliant on audience familiarity and actor chemistry, they necessarily take time to gel.
This brings us to Other Space and its 8-episode first season, currently streaming on Yahoo! Screen.
Some appetites (mine, maybe yours?) were whet for Other Space after reading the New Yorker’s profile of Allison Jones. Jones is a low-key comedy icon, the casting director responsible for the big breaks of everyone from Seth Rogen to Jonah Hill to basically the whole cast of The Office. The New Yorker followed her as she cast Other Space for her dear old friend, Ghostbusters: The Lady Reboot director and Freaks and Geeks co-creator Paul Feig. She was tasked with assembling a top-notch cast of relative unknowns to play Captain Stewart Lipinski and his inept, young crew, and she did it. Really well.
But, as The Office, Parks and Rec, and Seinfeld proved, that is just the first step. And I bet the second season of Other Space would really be something to talk about.
The first season of Other Space isn’t bad, it’s just a little broad. The jokes don’t hit as hard as one might like, and my long-held theory that Paul Feig was responsible for all the emotional depth of Freaks and Geeks isn’t totally vindicated here. There is a lot of set-up necessary to create this 2105, and only by the end of the first eight episodes was I truly excited for what might come next for this.
I should pause and say, it’s also not for me: I’m not a science fiction fan. But I do love jokes, awkward bands of weirdos, a well-executed trope send-up or the inventive use of a genre quirk – not to mention that one really sad Futurama and the space episode of NewsRadio, so, like the store clerk, I get it.
Appreciating these tropes is important to enjoying Other Space, but – even if you’ve never seen Star Wars like some people – it’s not hard to do. With entire galaxies to work with, there’s plenty of ground to be mined for comedic potential. But thanks to the familiar classics in the genre, like Spaceballs and Galaxy Quest, the jokes work best when they serve the specifics of this crew, not the general hilariousness of black, unending space. My own favorite episode married the necessities of sitcom world building with the science-y part of science fiction: two characters who lack a compelling relationship are forced to get to know each other thanks to a twist of Interstellar-style relative time. This is a fantastic use of form. More clever mashing of sci-fi and sitcom would be extremely welcome, especially if it furthers these promising characters’ connections.
Other Space is a workplace show as much as sci-fi parody, so relationships are paramount. Which brings us back to the actors, and the weird and hopeful magic of Jones’s casting: in many places it feels like Jones and Feig chose these actors in spite of their respective ill-fits for the written characters of the pilot. This is a good thing.
Besides sci-fi/comedy legends and MST3K alums Joel Hodgson (as ship engineer Zalian Fletcher) and Trace Beaulieu (as stowaway robot, A.R.T.), the crew’s most familiar face is probably Milana Vayntrub, the AT&T girl who hangs out with Mark Cuban, as directionless navigator Tina Shushkin. Star power! Vayntrub at first seems like an odd choice for Tina-as-written (ditzy, kind of mean, boyfriend-obsessed), but as the show plays more to her strengths (as impressive animalistic streak and a talent for speaking English with a strong Uzbek accent), she becomes pretty delightful. Bess Rous, as the captain’s ambitious and intense sister Karen is probably the most fully-realized character at inception, but I have suspicions that Natasha, the female avatar of ship’s computer, was not actually supposed to be as attractive as actress Conor Leslie. “Are my breasts and buttocks to your liking?” is one of her first lines, explaining that she should be programmed to be appealing enough to want to impress, but not enough to induce sexual fantasies. Due to Leslie’s objective allure, this just feels uncomfortable, pandering and incorrect (and parsing this feels real gross). But later on, when the computer has an opportunity to break down, simulating alcohol intoxication for Girls’ Night or becoming toddler-like as the OS reboots, Leslie is very funny. “Poop!” is a line of hers that made me laugh a bunch. Well said.
The dudes are good too, if somewhat unassuming. As Michael, whose main characteristic is that he’s bland (which is actually funny! But you know, eventually), Eugene Cordero is funny and very, very patient. So weird, off-putting and great as Broad City’s accountant and Kroll Show’s hacktivist, Neil Casey has deserved a long-term role for a while. His turn as Kent Woolworth, the highly-formal and begilled test tube baby of a famous space family is as weird, off-putting and great a place to start as any.
But despite the importance of the ensemble, the largest responsibility, as with any star craft, falls on its captain. Karan Soni (also of AT&T ad fame – are they sponsoring this series?) brings a charming, jumpy energy to Captain Stewart Lipinski. At first one might wonder if he is truly commander material (as he lacks command), but Soni’s enthusiasm (and often unexpected line delivery, yay) makes Stewart highly watchable.
If Other Space gets a second season to build characters out of these great group of actors, I will even consider watching Star Trek to get more of the jokes. Anyways, sorry about bragging about being in a bookstore earlier. TV forever.