Netflix's Space Force has some big shoes to fill and, frankly, isn't up to the task. As the latest workplace comedy from writer Greg Daniels, the series follows in the footsteps of acclaimed sitcoms The Office (US) and Parks and Recreation, but simply loses sight of what made those shows so popular. In the case of both, the work on display was mundane enough to be charming, while the larger-than-life personalities were often familiar to some extent (or at the very least likeable). In stark contrast, Space Force tries to wade into more satirical comedy but quickly finds itself in over its head.
Carell stars as Mark Naird, a high-ranking Air Force general who is given the responsibility of leading the newly founded galactic branch of the US military. It's a tough gig, viewed as a joke by his fellow generals and a waste of money by some politicians, but he remains determined to achieve the President's goal of having "boots on the moon" by 2024.
Naird is much closer to the farcical incompetence of Michael Scott than he is the goodhearted enthusiasm of Leslie Knope, but such a trait doesn't work anywhere near as well in this context. His consistent refusal to listen to rational scientific advice in favour of his own nonsensical schemes is more frustrating than it is funny, particularly given that it's an attitude shared by certain real world leaders at the moment. Nevertheless, we're supposed to root for him and cheer when things occasionally go his way, despite the fact that none of these successes feel deserved. It's tone deaf, to put it kindly.
The attempt at satire is further hampered by the show's toothless political barbs. While Trump is never actually seen in the show, there are familiar gags about his Twitter conduct and perceived immaturity, the likes of which have already been done to death by American sketch show Saturday Night Live. On the other end of the spectrum, a blindingly obvious stand-in for Democratic Party congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is depicted as an outright villain in one episode (for caring about her constituents, no less).
There's nothing wrong with taking jabs at both sides of the aisle, but in this case it feels more like a desperate gambit for maximum viewership than a genuine attempt at wry political commentary. The Thick Of It, this is not.
Nowhere is that more clear than in the cast that comprise the United States Space Force, who abandon any semblance of realism in a competition to be the most exaggerated caricature. John Malkovich comes away with the most dignity in tact, giving a serviceable performance as pompous scientific adviser Dr Adrian Mallory. On the other hand, Ben Schwartz adopts another Jean-Ralphio-style persona for social media whizz Tony Scarapiducci with diminishing returns, while Don Lake is truly tedious as Naird's dim-witted but loyal assistant.
Other characters like pilot Angela Ali (Tawny Newsome), scientist Chen Kaifang (Jimmy O Yang) and Mark's teenage daughter (Diana Silvers) feel like they have potential, but their respective arcs are horribly rushed in the final three episodes. Things could have been different had the series not wasted so much time introducing a wacky new premise for every early episode. None of these concepts are terrible, but the jokes are consistently lame and given how abruptly Space Force has to shift gear in its final act, it might have been wise not to devote an entire episode to an inconsequential air gun competition.
Every now and then, you catch a glimmer of a good show hiding out somewhere deep inside Space Force, but sadly it never emerges. Rather than be all things to all people, this series would have benefited from simply picking a lane and sticking to it. Instead, it tries to blend the biting political satire of The Thick Of It, the wacky high-jinks of Brooklyn Nine-Nine and the workplace comedy of The Office, creating a completely uneven concoction that does virtually nothing well.
Of course, The Office and Parks and Recreation had similarly wobbly first seasons, before growing into brilliant shows later in their run. The same could very well happen here, if anyone bothers to come back.