Tom Lehrer once said that “political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.” Not only is this a sick Kissinger burn, but it also raises an excellent point: a key characteristic of satire is taking an idea that is worthy of mockery (at least in the eyes of the satirist… please don’t send me angry letters, Kissinger groupies) and, as the filmmakers who created the all-time classic This is Spinal Tap would say, “turning it up to eleven.” But where can that dial go if it is already at eleven? Does it go to twelve, or does it go all the way around back to one?
This was a quandary faced by Greg Daniels (yes, I reviewed another project of his just a few weeks ago, but I need a lot of comedy in my life at the moment … I’m only human!) and Steve Carell when they decided to riff on the unexpected and bizarre declaration that the United States would be extending its military reach to the Final Frontier. Unfortunately, the first season of Netflix’s Space Force seems to have a hard time deciding if it wants to commit to the complete wackiness of a twelve or go down to a more realistic one, and the humor is quite uneven as a result.
The show starts off strong: Steve Carell is in his element as the gravelly-voiced Mark Naird, a no-nonsense four-star general tasked with leading the fledgling military branch into greatness. John Malkovich serves as his scientific advisor/straight man, and both are complemented by an extremely talented cast (including the great Fred Willard in his last on-screen role before his death). The production values are high, the laughs are solid and culminate in a side-splitting scene involving a chimp in a space suit floating through the vacuum, but just when you think you’ve found your new favorite show, things fizzle out and the dial drops. The middle episodes become a slog with laughs that are few and far between, and the show attempts to juggle so much character development from the get-go that you have a hard time caring about any of it. A lot of it feels like a missed opportunity; you expect a hilarious punchline and it either doesn’t come or it is much weaker than it should be. The dial drops to one and some very funny people have nothing funny to say. Lisa Kudrow of Friends fame, for instance, has a total of maybe two jokes throughout the entirety of Season 1, which is a downright shame, and Ben Schwartz, a very funny comedian that audiences may recognize as Jean-Ralphio from Parks and Recreation, is reduced to a very unfunny parody of Anthony Scaramucci who acts a lot like Jean-Ralphio without the likeability.
But just when you’re about to give up and watch something else, the last two episodes become hilarious again, and the season ends in a very interesting place that practically begs for a follow-up. If you are willing to slog through the moments where the dial is at a one, the bookend twelves are worth your time. Let’s just hope they can keep it there for all of Season 2 and give these funny people some more consistent material.
Space Force Season 1 is now available on Netflix.