There’s a statistical likelihood that your image of Steve Carell is based primarily on ‘The Office’, and on the films ‘The 40-Year-Old Virgin’ and ‘Anchorman’ before that.
In the streaming age it wouldn’t even be surprising if one of those venerable comedies was the last thing you watched him in. What are the odds that when you think of Carell you think of ‘Welcome to Marwen’ or ‘Battle of the Sexes’ or ‘Last Flag Flying’, recent movies whose box office ranged from poor to dismal?
It’s too bad, because he was great in all of them, in ways that went beyond his considerable skills as a comedian. Carell’s reinvention of himself as a dramatic actor, beginning roughly with ‘Foxcatcher’ in 2014, has been remarkable. That’s why ‘Space Force’, his new 10-episode series on Netflix, is particularly disappointing. If we’re going to get five hours of Carell on screen, did it have to be such a step backward?
‘Space Force’, which Carell created with the writer and producer Greg Daniels, his collaborator on ‘The Office’, tries to do a couple of things and doesn’t succeed in any very interesting or funny way at either.
It is, most obviously, a satire of some of the habits and attitudes of Donald J Trump. Carell’s character, Gen Mark R Naird, is put in charge of the newly formed Space Force, a branch of the military established by a Twitter-loving president to protect the satellites off which his inflammatory tweets bounce.
The president of the show is unnamed and unseen but familiar. In addition to his Twitter habit, he presides over a chaotic administration and “has a name” for developing countries that can’t be repeated. The show’s humour largely flows from the scrambling, slapstick attempts of Naird and his team to satisfy the commander in chief’s “boots on the moon by 2024” pledge, and to thwart his warlike impulses as other countries, most gallingly China, steal his thunder.
Fused with the relatively up-to-date political burlesque, though, is another element that harks back to Daniels’ heyday on ‘The Office’ and ‘Parks and Recreation’. It’s a more sentimental workplace and family sitcom, focused on Naird’s relationships with his wife, Maggie (Lisa Kudrow), and his teenage daughter, Erin (Diana Silvers), who resents the move from Washington to the space base in rural Colorado; and with his cynical science adviser, Adrian Mallory (John Malkovich).
There’s a workable comic framework in this bipartite structure. Naird seems designed to bridge a certain contemporary cultural gap. He exhibits traits that could be identified as Trumpian — a tendency to browbeat and second-guess the scientists who work for him, a readiness to question the loyalty of those with roots in exotic places like China or Belgium — though the show correlates them with his gung-ho military background rather than any political beliefs or ugly prejudices.
At the same time he’s pointedly portrayed as a caring father and husband, and someone who will, at the last extreme of presidential impetuosity, take a stand against needlessly provoking other nuclear powers.
Like a lot of sitcom dads, he’s a little deplorable, but he puts a human face on it. (In terms of ‘The Office’, he has some Michael Scott in him but he’s a lot more capable.)
Carell has no problem making both sides of that equation believable and engaging — he’s a master of the quick shifts and reversals the part requires. But he’s too good for the material, which never takes off. The loony parts aren’t sharp enough, despite the efforts of Carell and crack performers like Noah Emmerich, Jane Lynch and Diedrich Bader, playing awfully broad stuffed-uniform stereotypes as Naird’s fellow joint chiefs.
Malkovich is pleasingly louche as Mallory, and Silvers is funny as the angry daughter, but their scenes with Carell are bland and overly sincere and run on too long. (The episodes, at a full 30 minutes, generally feel padded.)
The saving grace of the show could have been Kudrow, who, as always, can make you laugh anytime she wants, with a roll of her shoulders or a disgusted expression. But she’s not on screen much, and her character is barely sketched — she’s part of a running joke that may pay off if the show gets another season. Still, the funniest thing in 10 episodes of ‘Space Force’ is a five-second shot of her hair.
‘Space Force’ is streaming on Netflix.