Tuesday, June 23, 2020

May the Space Force Be With You

Hollywood makes for strange bedfellows. And quarantines, I’ve learned, can make for some strange TV watching. Up until now I had thought that Steve Carell could do no wrong. Over the years I’ve cheered for his many and varied screen performances: as a sweet, shy doofus in The Forty-Year-Old Virgin (2005), as a gay Proust scholar with a suicidal streak in Little Miss Sunshine (2006), as a good-hearted supervillain boasting an impenetrable accent in the animated Despicable Me (2010). Mostly he’s been known for comedy, but his biographical role as murderous wrestling enthusiast John E. du Pont in Foxcatcher (2014) nabbed him an Oscar nomination.

He’s a writer too, responsible for the script of The Forty-Year-Old Virgin. And he’s both written and directed episodes of The Office, the long-running TV sitcom (2005-2013) in which he starred as Michael Scott, the world’s most well-intentioned but aggravating boss. (I’m partial to the episodes, like “Diversity Day,” in which he clumsily tries to promote interracial good will while infuriating absolutely everyone on his staff.)

So what’s he up to now? Well, on May 29 of this year, when we were all deep into social distancing mode, Carell and writer-producer Greg Daniels (who worked with him on The Office) introduced a ten-part new Netflix comedy series, Space Force. As the title suggests, the series is intended as a satirical look at the current administration’s actual plan for a new branch of the U.S. military, intended to focus on the conquest of outer space. There’s some contemporary resonance to the show: it establishes an unnamed POTUS who likes to send out emphatic Tweets and whose proposed slogan for the new space exploration effort, “Boots on the Moon,” is a variation on his original catchphrase: “Boobs on the Moon.”

My quarantine partner is an aerospace engineer and I too have a certain interest in space exploration, so this was something we didn’t want to miss. When the Space Force moon rocket lifted up, and when the command module gracefully settled on the lunar surface, Bernie was impressed at the details that were portrayed correctly. Needless to say, the show’s satirical slant also required some ludicrous exaggerations, like a launch that was moved up by four years to thwart a competing Chinese mission, necessitating a motley crew of untrained welders and electricians to staff a lunar science lab. And, as the head of the team on the ground, Carell projects the sort of oblivious geniality that marked his Michael Scott. Here he’s a four-star general, not the boss of the Scranton, PA branch of Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, but this new character is equally clueless.

For me the show’s top asset is John Malkovich, as Space Force’s chief scientist, a  rather effete hyper-intellectual who’s a good counterweight to Carell’s bluff General Mark Naird. Also along for the ride is Lisa Kudrow as Mark’s wife. For reasons that are never explained, Kudrow’s Maggie has spent most of the season’s 10 episodes serving a forty-year prison sentence. (If there’s a joke here, it escapes me completely.) As for Carell’s role, no one seems to have decided whether he’s a comic buffoon or a sensitive guy missing his wife and struggling with his angry teen-aged daughter. There’s a good gag or two: the lead astronaut, an ambitious young African-American woman, agonizes over to what to say when she makes history by stepping onto the lunar service. She decides on a history-evoking phrase, “It’s good to be back on the moon,” but muffs it, saying instead, “It’s good to be Black on the moon.” Funny, but not worth ten episodes.

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