Well, that was disappointing. Dropping the dullest and flattest episode of Space Force to date this close to the end of the first season could potentially sour the entire experience for viewers, and seems like it may have had an impact on the overall reviews. After feeling like this show was putting the pieces together in the middle stretch of the season, it’s depressing to see it dip back in the other direction with inconsistent characters, weak jokes, and scenes that are just impossible to care about and feel like they go on forever. What was the highlight of this episode? Either Mallory swearing at a potential candidate or Dr. Chan doing a K-pop dance, probably. It was dire.
Perhaps the problem with “Conjugal Visit” stems from dividing the narrative into four subplots instead of the traditional two that the season has employed. Even when this show works, it’s a little thin in terms of character. We don’t really feel like we know these people yet, and so spreading the plot this thin amplifies the show’s weaknesses. Naird’s conjugal visit, Ali and Chan’s trip to the eye doctor, Mallory and company’s interview process for the space station, and Erin remembering to jog is a lot for 30 minutes, so none of them work because they all feel so half-baked. Multiple seasons into a show, a series can get away with an episode like this because viewers know and love the characters enough to make the thin plotting deeper by virtue of history. That’s not the case here. It’s just boring.
It starts with Mallory having to rush what should have been a four-year program to get bodies on the moon into three days. If the Chinese have a base on the lunar surface already, then the United States is behind, and so everything gets rushed. However, the writers of Space Force push Naird to another plotline with his rescheduled conjugal visit with his wife Maggie, played by Lisa Kudrow. The opening scene sends Mallory, F-Tony, and Brad to complete the team for the base (with “no uggos”); sends Naird to see his wife; and sends Chan and Ali to Denver for an eye exam.
From the beginning, the writing here is just flat. The jokes about “going to Denver” hit like a thud — Denver may not be as great as you remember, don’t just focus on Downtown Denver, etc. The joke is that everyone is in on the fact that a grown man is going to have sex with his wife, as if that would be a big deal? Listen, Space Force doesn’t have to be realistic, but the writing needs to be funnier if it’s going to depart from reality this broadly. And that’s an issue throughout the season — either give us characters or give us farce, don’t straddle this gray, fuzzy, boring line in the middle.
Anyway, back to the quest to fill a team to go to the moon by the weekend. Naturally, sensing that Space Force is desperate, the quality candidates demand more, including a $1 million salary. The staffing subplot works best this episode, and not just because it’s another reminder that no one drops a “fuck you” like John Malkovich. Ultimately, Brad, Tony, and Mallory settle on the only two people left on the base who it seems are willing to go, including Pelia and Chris Gethard’s Eddie, who hasn’t been spotted since the first episode. Jokes about not knowing which moon they’re going to and if anyone has considered Lunar Werewolves are at least mild chuckles in an episode largely devoid of laughs.
The bulk of “Conjugal Visit” consists of Mark and Maggie Naird discussing the state of their marriage. What starts as a plan to get busy so quickly that Mark even uses a “two for one” basketball analogy gets deep when Maggie suggests they have an open marriage. She’s going to be behind bars for 40 years, and she wants both of them to be happy. The idea that marriage is not just “sexual exclusivity” is smart and could have been handled well if we had time to care about Mark and Maggie. But the writing here just sags, and it’s especially depressing when a show like this wastes talents like Fred Willard and Lisa Kudrow, who deserve to get more laughs.
At least Chan and Ali get to have some fun. The writers are clearly leaning into a relationship for these two, and Yang and Newsome have some fun chemistry. It could be interesting to see where it goes, although this show’s issues with writing women continues in that the only two regulars have to be paired up with men to get plotlines most of the time. Still, it’s fun to watch Chan and Ali sing along to K-pop, and there’s not a lot of fun elsewhere in this episode.
Finally, there’s Erin Naird learning from some inmates behind a fence that she has freedom and likes to run. Diana Silvers is talented, but this never should have gotten past the writers room. It’s all awkward and simplistic stuff. Being able to work out on the right side of the fence makes her realize her freedom. Eyeroll. Find something to do with Erin, writers of Space Force, that doesn’t make her seem so childish. Maybe she could go to the moon!
• Naird describes his job as “Rockets go up, rockets go down.” I could feel his pain this episode at the mundanity of it all.
• Of course Tony is an Alabama fan. He’s probably a Yankees and Patriots fan too. He’s the kind of guy who roots for whoever is winning the most.
• One more Erin complaint: she seems upset that her mother has more friends in prison than she does outside of it. This is such a good example of older writers trying to put thoughts into a teenager. Is Erin really that selfish? Even April would be happy mom wasn’t miserable.
• The pacing here is just deadly. Again, I think it’s because the writers of a show like this are attuned to a two-plot structure with one A-plot involving Naird and then a B-plot usually with Chan, Tony, or Erin. By segmenting into four plots, they completely lose the rhythm. Some scenes go on way too long – I thought Mark and Maggie were going to try to get her jumpsuit off for 15 minutes – while others are too short. Comedy is all about timing, and it’s off here from minute one to credits.
• And I was reminded about that tonal uncanny valley in which this show exists. It’s a program that wants realism in scenes like the conjugal visit but then edges to broad farce at other times. Pick a lane, Space Force, or people are going to pick another show.