The second episode of Space Force centers on the attempt to save the Epsilon satellite after it was sabotaged by the Chinese, and the first casualty of the Space Force program, a dogstronaut named Theodore. It also illustrates a show already in a bit of a tonal crisis that can be summed up with one question: Is General Naird an idiot? The premiere felt like it was edging into the territory of Armando Iannucci with a narrative about a man surrounded by naysayers and bureaucracy — Veep meets the space program. And there’s definitely still a lot of that here.
However, it also feels like the second episode veers back into more familiar ground for the veterans of The Office. It’s not hard to picture Michael Scott writing the word “Bomb” as a suggested solution to a crisis in space, or hoping that a chimp doesn’t reveal state secrets to the enemy after being taken prisoner. So is Space Force really a show about someone failing upward? About failures of leadership? Are we even supposed to like General Naird? Two episodes in and Carell’s protagonist feels a bit too undefined, veering wildly from the kind of leadership that made him a four-star general to a sense that he is actually supposed to be the stand-in for Trump, someone who refuses to listen to the scientists around him and bullies his way through conversations with intellectuals.
“Save Epsilon 6!” is more narratively focused than the premiere, presenting us with really only two plotlines – the attempt to repair the damaged satellite and a subplot about Erin’s Trig homework, which she has to get done without her dad’s help. At the end of the episode, even after failing to save a billion-dollar satellite, General Naird is willing to finally help his daughter with her math homework. It’s an attempt to humanize him, and the show could use a little more of that in future episodes if Naird is going to feel like more than a device to reflect the chaos around him. The Erin subplot also allows Fred Willard one more scene, and he makes out a little better than the premiere. Willard could make anything funny, even thin jokes about how easily old people are scammed by phishing emails and elderly flatulence.
Most of “Save Epsilon 6!” takes place in the control center from which Naird and Mallory are going to save the satellite. As scientists bounce ideas around the room, including one named Yamato suggesting that light waves could push the solar panels back in place, Naird shoots them all down. He suggests things like bomb repercussions pushing the parts back together — which most people learn in elementary school isn’t physically possible — and one has to consider some of Trump’s wilder ideas, i.e. “Bleach-gate,” during scenes like this one. Political affiliation aside, there’s a national conversation right now about how much the real president listens to the people around him that makes a line like “Why do you distrust scientists?” register in a way that Daniels and Carell couldn’t have expected. It will be interesting to see if responses to Space Force break along party lines. It’s certainly not a show that’s friendly to the current administration, but it may not be mean enough to push away Trump supporters, either. Only time will tell, and a lot could hinge on whether the tweeter-in-chief himself actually responds.
What’s interesting is that the show doesn’t seem to have an answer for the scientist question. At times, Naird seems to listen to the smart people around him like Mallory, but then he’ll push back against their advice just for the sake of comedy. And even the political satire here feels like it skims the surface. Is it conceivable that Trump would send ten assault rifles, a chimp, and a dog into space just for the press that would result? Sure. It’s not that hard to believe that’s already happened. And Mallory gets one of the best lines of the episode when he calls it “a literal dog-and-pony show, recast with a chimp.”
But then what is Space Force trying to say about the dog-and-chimp show? Anything? Mallory gets an interesting beat about whether people should trust the people who invented the bus versus the driver of the bus. If Space Force could lean into that idea more — the anti-intellectualism that leads so many to trust spokespeople and social media more than inventors and scientists — this show would have more meat on its bones.
Until then, there’s a lot of sign language with a chimp named Marcus. It’s funny that Naird wants to impress a sense of duty on the chimpstronaut, who is bored, hungry, and horny. And there are some humorous minor beats in these sequences, like Malkovich calling Marcus “Murderous George” and Tony saying that he manages Marcus’s Facebook page. Ultimately, Marcus gets to the satellite, but the drill spins him around and destroys his tether. Before he can fly into the sun, he’s taken in by the Chinese, the first POW of Space Force. And then Naird learns that Marcus ate his dog colleague Theodore. It’s actually all a little more depressing than they probably intended it to be.
And maybe that’s why Daniels tries to end with a bit of a heartwarming moment. After more than 24 hours without sleep, Naird sits down with his daughter to help with her math homework. Is Naird a family man? An idiot? A true leader in a situation in which it’s impossible to lead? All of the above? As this show tries to figure out its tone, coming to terms with exactly who is leading this spaceship to nowhere is going to be the most important mission.
• John Malkovich can make even a simple phrase like “cute footage” drip with disdain like no one else in the business.
• Is Carell’s voice even deeper here than in the premiere? It sounds at times, especially in his first scene in the control center, like he’s almost doing a Bale Batman thing.
• Dr. Chen makes a reference to the space junk near the Epsilon, including a Tesla. Want to know more? Like where that Tesla is right now? Click here. We truly are in the weirdest timeline.
• Mallory name-drops some of the other dogs in space, most of whom were apparently just left to die there, including Laika and Dezik. Click here if you’re curious about learning more.
• At one point, Marcus wants a baby monkey to eat, and it’s suggested that Brad Google it to find out more. I did that, and I’ll just leave this National Geographic story here for when you’re ready. You’ve been warned.