The best episode so far of Space Force relies on the already solid comic timing between Steve Carell and John Malkovich, who is emerging as the most likely candidate to steal the first season of this show. Malkovich could have leaned into the exasperated frustration he has brought to other characters, like his incredible work in Burn After Reading, but he’s finding nuance beyond Mallory’s profanity, grounding him in a more complex performance. He realizes that the anger Mallory feels for Naird is tempered by his understanding, especially at the end of this episode, that Mark really is trying to do the right thing in a difficult situation. While the political world may be full of money-grabbing idiots, General Mark Naird simply wants to do his assigned job as well as possible. Dammit, he’s gonna get those boobs on the moon. In 2020, that kind of commitment is rare.
Once again, Space Force uses the traditional sitcom structure of an A and B plot for “Mark and Mallory Go to Washington.” The A plot is the journey by Naird and Mallory to Congress to get their budget approved, allowing for another visit to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (and cameos by Jane Lynch and the other talented comedians who seem to be locked in that room, or at least to have filmed all their scenes in one day) and the return of General Grabaston, Naird’s professional nemesis and someone who believes he should have been handed Space Force instead. In the B plot, Erin Naird gets some development, handled through some “walking and talking” scenes with Officer Angela Ali, a character who’s still being worked out and seems for now like not much more than a sounding board for people like Mark and Erin.
Mallory starts the episode angry. While Naird is in a meeting with Tony, Mallory realizes that even the massive budget being proposed guts a number of his research programs. After some huffing and puffing and retrieving of ID, Mallory, Tony, and Naird head off to D.C. for the hearing in front of senators named Schugler, Pitosi, and clear AOC stand-in Anabela Ysidro-Campos, who is “rarely at a loss for words.” The thinly veiled characterizations of real senators still feel weird in a show that’s unwilling to actually use the word “Trump” or even present a character modeled after him other than by way of reference. Although, who knows, maybe there will be a President Trimp or Grump in a future episode.
Before the hearing, Grabaston sidles up to Mallory and basically tries to recruit him for a mutiny. Desperate to reclaim Space Force, he suggests that he’ll give Mallory more freedom for his projects. After all, Grabaston cares about all the ice that’s melting. He promises twice the funding and none of the oversight, and the look on Malkovich’s face is perfect — he sells how much Mallory knows this guy is full of shit without having to actually say it. Naird may not give Mallory everything he wants, but he also doesn’t make false promises.
Despite some really awkwardly written comedy about tampons and panties, the writing here in D.C. works better than the first two episodes overall, especially when the characters get into the actual hearing. Compared to worrying about chimps telling secrets to the Chinese, it feels like the writers of Space Force are actually taking their concept seriously here. The season also gets a much-needed piece of foundational character work in Naird’s response to AYC asking why an orange costs $10,000. Naird tells the Senators that it’s about morale. He sometimes feels like he needs to remind an astronaut what she’s fighting for with a piece of citrus that can’t be re-created in space. There’s a really nice rhythm to the way the testimony scene moves from farce (repeated jokes about a senator who doesn’t believe the Earth is round) to character depth for Naird to even a reflection of protests of Supreme Court appointees by people in outfits designed to look like The Handmaid’s Tale. As the scene peaks with Naird defending his budget by saying it’s meant to protect research, like heightened weather warnings, that can save lives, Space Force almost feels downright patriotic. This show will work best if it’s about good, funny people stuck in difficult situations instead of about idiots who make their situations more difficult through their idiocy.
While all of this is going down in D.C., a thinner B plot develops via the fact that Erin Naird is bored out of her mind. While some of the rips on Colorado are a bit odd (especially from the co-creator of a previous show that made Pawnee, Indiana, seem like a wonderful place to live and raise a family), even these scenes feel stronger in terms of character, clearly pushing Erin and Ali into a friendship and possibly even a new love triangle between the young Naird and her dad’s new guard Duncan Tabner and the slimy “Bobby.” Erin is almost shaping up as the second lead of the show.
Overall, the ridiculous situations like chimpstronauts spinning on space drills and even the unfortunate dementia jokes with Fred Willard have been replaced by something that feels deeper and more character-driven in the third episode. If they keep this up, they may actually get this comedy rocket off the ground.
• It’s fun to watch Mallory and Naird bounce quotes by General Patton off each other, and the scene is perfectly capped by Naird ending with one of his own quotes. He considers himself as important as Patton, a leader in a world without enough of them.
• It’s great to see Noah Emmerich having fun, even if the writers have yet to figure this character out at all. Still, you have to love his last line and the capper to the episode: “Because ostriches are feathery, like the magical Earth.”
• The senator convinced the world is flat felt a bit like an easy joke, but it did remind me of this jaw-dropping moment in which an elected official seemed to have no idea how islands work.