Netflix’s highly anticipated reunion between Steve Carell and Greg Daniels is going to naturally draw comparisons to a little show they made together called The Office. After all, this spoof of Donald J. Trump’s beloved Space Force program is essentially a workplace comedy, and Daniels and Carell collaborated on one of the best workplace comedies ever. However, the premiere makes another influence feel even more prominent: Armando Iannucci. The brilliant satirist has torn down power structures in shows like The Thick of It, Veep, and even Avenue 5 — all programs about failures of leadership and the intersection of personal need and the greater good.
The problem is that despite the very strong cast here, the comparison to Iannucci doesn’t do Space Force any favors. There’s a sense while watching “The Launch” that this should be funnier, this should be smarter, and this should zip more than just mosey along. Now, that’s the kind of thing that comedies often work out as ensembles and writers get adjusted to the rhythm of their series — many a comedy classic was built atop a weak pilot. Maybe Space Force will take off. Right now, though, it feels a bit burdened by the weight of its talent.
And yet look at that cast! Who doesn’t want to watch a comedy with Steve Carell, Lisa Kudrow, John Malkovich, Ben Schwartz, and the late Fred Willard? Add the wonderful familiar faces in smaller roles like Diana Silvers, Jimmy O. Yang, Noah Emmerich, and Jessica St. Clair, and there’s something comforting about Space Force just purely in terms of casting. It will be interesting to see how the response to this show plays out, but it feels largely dependent on expectations. Yes, this cast is a joy to spend time with from episode to episode. But shouldn’t a Netflix show with an ensemble this strong maybe offer more than that?
Carell plays General Mark R. Naird as a square-jawed, conservative type. Understandably trying to distinguish Naird from Michael Scott as much as possible, Carell’s take here is more that of a frustrated leader than Michael’s wide-eyed naïveté. It’s almost the inverse of The Office in that everyone around Naird is making his life hell, instead of the problems coming from the man in charge himself.
In the premiere, Naird is promoted to four-star general status, meaning he answers only to the Secretary of Defense and POTUS. He quickly discovers that POTUS wants to get “boots on the moon by 2024,” in a thinly veiled spoof of our actual president, even though Trump’s name is never actually used. A president who enacts policy through Twitter and types “boobs” when he means “boots” — it’s clearly supposed to be Trump, and it’s an interesting choice by Daniels and company to not actually use his name. They seem to want to remain barely removed from reality, even going as far as to name Senators Schugler and Pitosi (bad parody names for Schumer and Pelosi), but that almost makes it feel more toothless. Either avoid reality altogether or bite down hard. No one wants the in-between.
The premiere centers on the launch of a satellite called Epsilon and the advisers and scientists telling Naird that it’s not ready to go. There’s really not much more plot than that — Naird is told repeatedly not to launch but he does it anyway — but the purpose of the episode is more to introduce us to the major players for the season. So let’s break those down:
General Mark Naird (Steve Carell)
We see almost all of the action of the premiere through his eyes (until the scene with Angela near the end). Again, he’s not so much the ignorant idiot in charge as he is the old-fashioned leader surrounded by morons. It’s an interesting shift that says something about how culture and the workplace comedy has changed from The Office to Space Force.
Dr. Adrian Mallory (John Malkovich)
Clearly the type who thinks he’s the smartest person in every room and isn’t afraid to tell you so, Malkovich is perfectly cast here as the man who pretends to be Naird’s superior and orders him not to launch Epsilon. After all, Malkovich knows a thing or two about frustrating bureaucracy after appearing in Burn After Reading, another project that feels like an inspiration here.
F. Tony Scarapiducci (Ben Schwartz)
The star of Parks and Recreation and Middleditch & Schwartz plays the social-media director of Space Force, a thankless and nearly impossible job that’s made no easier by Tony’s push to drag Naird into the Twitter era. In his best scene in the pilot, Tony tries to talk Naird into tweeting something unfunny about Star Wars and Wendy’s, indicating how much social media is often just about getting brand attention, even for military operations.
Angela Ali (Tawny Newsome)
Given that we follow this spaceman first class home at the end of the episode, Angela is probably going to play a bigger role in future episodes, likely as our eyes into the chaos of Space Force. She’s the common-sense character, someone actually willing to defy Naird’s perfectionist behavior in the name of safety when she allows him to be a minute late so she can land her helicopter in the right place.
Erin Naird (Diana Silvers)
The Booksmart star adds some youth to a relatively old cast as Mark’s daughter. She’s on her own with her tough-talking dad because mom (Lisa Kudrow) just happens to be behind bars. She’s also a potential romantic interest for the slimy Yuri, a.k.a. Bobby (Alex Sparrow), a Russian who is seen going through Naird’s office in his introduction.
Kelly King (Jessica St. Clair), Dr. Chen Kaifang (Jimmy O. Yang), Brad Gregory (Don Lake), Bert Mellows (Roy Wood Jr.), Eddie (Chris Gethard), and Fred Naird (Fred Willard)
There are familiar faces throughout the premiere of Space Force, all of them talented comedy veterans. Roy Wood Jr. gets a great sequence in which Naird tries to pivot to something called Yellowjacket before that project literally explodes, but the most heartbreaking moment in the premiere belongs to Fred Willard, to whom the episode is dedicated. Sure, it’s great to see Willard again, but dementia humor? Really? Let’s hope he has at least one more scene.
Arguably the best scene in the series premiere comes early when Naird is allowed into a four-star general meeting for the first time, and Daniels & Co. populate their war room with legends including Jane Lynch, Patrick Warburton, Diedrich Bader, and Noah Emmerich. Whether or not we’ll see them again is unclear, but it’s another moment in Space Force when the sheer talent of the cast overwhelms the relatively mediocre writing.
And that’s really the ultimate feeling at the end of Space Force’s premiere — great people doing just decent work so far. There are laughs in “The Launch,” but given the supergroup status of this cast, there just aren’t quite enough. And more disconcerting is the sense that a lot of the jokes here are depressingly easy — Russia, Pitosi, Twitter, etc. Let’s just hope the writers of Space Force didn’t presume that their cast was so good that they could make anything funny. It could be a long season if they did.
• The “Kokomo” joke is a perfect example of what’s just a bit off in terms of timing here. A tough guy like Naird whisper-singing the Beach Boys to calm himself? Funny. Turning it into a dance number? Less funny. Also, you should read this piece by the great Tim Grierson, who just hates this song.
• Chris Gethard only has one scene but he got my biggest laugh with the delivery of “I ain’t a doctor … I go to a lot of ’em though.”
• Roy Wood asking Naird if he was running instead of walking also produced a chuckle, as did Schwartz yelling to Siri to send a tweet as he was being detained. There are chuckles throughout “The Launch,” just not enough big laughs.
• Speaking of the Veep comparison, can you imagine if John Malkovich had done a season on that HBO hit? Burn After Reading proved that no one says the word “fuck” quite like Malkovich, and it would have been glorious to see him get Iannucci’s gift with profane humor. Maybe in a movie?