The first season of Space Force limps to a bizarre cliffhanger with its final episode, which includes a battle for power on Earth that impacts the scientists on the moon. Meanwhile, because the writers have to give her some sort of season climax and clearly ran out of ideas, Erin Naird is basically kidnapped and stranded in the middle of nowhere. It’s a truly bizarre subplot that resolves in a way that’s even weirder, with an arrested General Mark Naird piloting a helicopter in the middle of an international crisis and Maggie Naird escaping prison just, well, because. Even for a show that has been hit-and-miss for nine episodes, the writing here is kind of jaw-dropping in its ineptitude. It doesn’t make sense, it’s not funny, and it feels like they literally ran out of ideas on how to end the season.
Better than the Erin-gets-kidnapped subplot is the material around the Chinese attack on the American flag on the moon and the discussion over how to respond. Again, Space Force flirts with political commentary with lines like, “The real enemy is arrogance” and discussion of how people puff out their chests without an understanding of history or the impact of their decisions. At first, Naird seems to be the only voice of reason in the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As people talk about bombing, nuking, and being a “bull in the China shop,” Naird keeps shaking his head. Interestingly, most of the Joint Chiefs walk back the rhetoric, but General Grabaston, who thinks Space Force should be his anyway, pushes ahead with the support of the SecDef and POTUS. They want to burn the Chinese to the ground. While a focus group is discussing whether to play “Ding Dong Ditch” or toilet paper the Chinese rocket, POTUS demands shock and awe.
It turns out that there are guns in the locker labelled “Spare Oxygen,” which infuriates Dr. Mallory enough to quit, handing duties off to Dr. Chan. There’s a cute scene between Chan and Ali as she worries that she’s going to have to shoot a gun on the moon at a Chinese base the next morning. Yang has turned something of a non-character into someone likable. And he’s the new Chief Scientist!
Naird defies the order and tells Ali to dismantle the guns. As they try to buy time to figure out how to respond, Grabaston takes control, arresting Duncan and Naird. He then orders Ali and the scientists to attack the Chinese with wrenches. And he actually says, “It’s wrenchin’ time,” which is something no adult would ever do in that situation.
Meanwhile, Erin Naird is standing outside a convenience store when she asks someone for a smoke. The guy tells her to get in his truck, which she does, but then they take her to the middle of nowhere, where people are handing out drug paraphernalia and ignoring her requests to be taken back to civilization. The threat here is so weird. Not only is it half-baked writing to get Erin into jeopardy in this manner, but the jeopardy is so undefined. They don’t even give the bad guys any lines. They’re just there, being scary. And so Erin has to try and get a signal to call dad, who is in the middle of being arrested, and Duncan, who is next to dad. She even calls mom for help.
Finally taking action herself — which seems like it’s going to be the lesson here but then just isn’t — Erin steals a bike and pedals back to town. Amorphous bad guys on motorcycles almost catch up to her just before dad lands in a helicopter and saves the day. And then it gets weirder when they spot Maggie in a gully. She escaped from prison with her girlfriend Louise. The season ends with all of them in a helicopter, reunited in the wake of Naird knowing that he will probably be court martialed. It’s such a weird note on which to end the season that it seems totally feasible that next year could open with Erin still with the drug addicts, revealing all of the stuff with the bike, copter, and her parents was a hallucination.
Of course, the real cliffhanger is on the moon. After going to the Chinese base and doing “something” — we don’t actually see them dismantle the base — they return to their side of the Sea of Tranquility to find their station has been destroyed. Now Ali and her team are stuck. How will they get home? Can Naird fly his helicopter to the moon too?
How does Space Force improve in season two? The first thing to note is that pretty much every Greg Daniels show has improved after its first season, so there’s ample reason for hope. Let’s go over a few things that should happen:
1. Pick a political stance or don’t. Either go at the current administration or shoot for something more timeless, but make a choice. This in-between approach, with people clearly based on politicians with names like Pitosi but with nothing really to say about any of them, feels toothless.
2. Write for your women. Diana Silvers, Jessica St. Clair, Lisa Kudrow — talented people reduced to roles that are purely defined by their relationship to Naird: daughter, love interest, wife. Tawny Newsome is starting to develop into someone who stands on her own. Keep that up and give the other women more individuality.
3. Lean into what works with your cast and they’ll figure out the characters with you. A show like Parks and Recreation elevated its writing by leaning into the strengths of its cast — Plaza’s cynicism, Ansari’s exuberance, Offerman’s droll pessimism. So embrace Malkovich’s dry wit and Schwartz’s showmanship. Let their strengths make their characters feel more consistent and we’ll feel like we know them. Too often in season one it felt like everyone — writers and cast — were stumbling on their way to figuring out who these people are, especially Carell.
4. Go full farce or avoid the nonsense. The biggest problem with season one was its tonal inconsistency. The show would jump from chimps spinning on drills to character-driven scenes between a father and daughter. Pick a lane to avoid the uncanny valley between broad comedy and character-driven satire. The latter seems like the smarter choice — like Veep, the character’s flaws and strengths should guide the narrative, rather than sitcom set-ups. This is one of the best comedy ensembles in terms of sheer talent. Now it’s time to figure out how to get this TV rocket off the launchpad.
• Malkovich’s line about how Naird is more “Wayne John than John Wayne” is one of the few laughs in an episode sadly short on them. We’ve all worked with a Wayne John.
• Who’s your MVP? For me, it’s not even close. John Malkovich is perfectly cast and does a lot with often very little in terms of writing. The same can be said for Jimmy O. Yang, who would be second for me. Maybe I just identify with the frustrated scientists.
• Thanks for reading this season! This show is too big not to be renewed, and despite how this season ended with its weakest episodes, I’m eager to see where it goes. Casting is often the biggest asset a comedy can have, because writing can be tweaked whereas a bad ensemble is just a bad ensemble. And this certainly isn’t a bad ensemble.