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Review: ‘Space Force’ squanders a chance to skewer the American dilemma

Tom Long
Special to The Detroit News

“Space Force” floats in orbit around all kinds of potential. 

Unfortunately, it never lands anywhere, so it kind of just drifts away. 

It’s predicated on the sheer silliness of the name of Donald Trump’s new military branch. Just last week Trump said it would feature a, no kidding, ”super-duper” rocket ship. This should be fertile ground for comedy. 

That’s obviously what the Netflix execs who commissioned the show thought. So they asked producer Greg Daniels  (“The Office,” “Parks and Recreation,” the recent and far superior Amazon comedy “Upload”) and Steve Carell to create a series of the same name. 

Steve Carelll as General Mark R. Naird in "Space Force."

Lord knows there was no skimping on talent or production values. Carell plays General Mark Naird, who laughs at the very idea of Space Force right before he’s unexpectedly put in charge of it. John Malkovich plays the scientist brought in to get “boots on the moon” by 2024. Lisa Kudrow plays Naird’s wife, although she’s mostly missing in action. 

Also on board are stalwarts like Jane Lynch, Diedrich Bader, Patrick Warburton and a boatload of solid character actors. Noah Emmerich (“The Americans”) plays Naird’s rival, the condescending commander of the Air Force. And Fred Willard, in his last role, is (when called upon) hilarious as Naird’s serenely confidently senile father. 

That’s a lot of talent. This should be pretty funny, right? 

Yeah, well… 

Understand there are indeed some funny bits here, especially early on in the season. And the targets are certainly broad and ripe enough. 

Soldiers are called Spacemen, or Space Cadets. The headquarters’ food truck is Meals Armstrong. And the First Lady – the name Trump is never mentioned though it hangs over everything – wants the Space Force uniforms to include capes and lots of pointless gold braiding. 

Influences abound – the “Naked Gun-Airplane-Hot Shots” movies, early TV satires like “Get Smart,” later jewels like “Parks and Recreation” – but the show never settles in a groove. One minute it’s sheer goofy slapstick, then it’s political satire, then –especially as the season progresses – there are Very Special Moments or Inspirational speeches. 

Handled right it could be considered disruptive TV. Unfortunately, this is more disorganized TV, a sort of throw everything and see what sticks approach. Not much sticks. 

Which is really too bad because at its core “Space Force” is all about logic versus wishful thinking, science versus stupidity. This, you may have noticed, is kind of a crucial problem in our current world, and it’s become even more of a crucial problem since COVID-19 arrived. 

“Space Force” couldn’t have foreseen a deadly pandemic but it could have bitten more forcefully into America’s ailing intellect. The show operates with an unhinged POTUS, it has an AOC character, it brings in Theranos and high tech magical thinking, and revels in governmental waste – but these are all glancing shots instead of full-on satirical attacks. 

A lot of humor ends up left behind and most of it stops short. This is a show that cuts with a butter knife instead of a razor blade. And it cuts every which way instead of one direction. The result is, not surprisingly, a mess. 

“Space Force,” we do not have lift off.   

'Space Force' 

GRADE: C 

Netflix