My Friday wasn’t great. It was one of those days when the world rejected my efforts, so by the time 10PM rolled around, I was done. No late-night drawing session watching one of the American news networks. I’d had enough of Trump, having written that long piece in the morning. The rioting was also getting too much to handle so I turned on Netflix, thinking I was going to finish watching the last series of Community. I changed my mind when I saw that Space Force was available.
I’d been looking forward to it under the mistaken belief that it was the new series by Armando Iannucci. I’d heard he was making a new series set in space but wrongly assumed it was this one with Steve Carell. Turns out, I was thinking of Avenue 5 with Hugh Laurie, which has already been broadcast on HBO, which explains why I missed it.
In the end, I still watched four episodes of Space Force back to back. It had got a lukewarm review on The Guardian, which doesn’t always mean a comedy is bad, so I was eager to test it against my weird taste in humour.
The Guardian was probably right. It turns out that Space Force is another of those very strange modern shows, often produced by Netflix, where vast millions are thrown around to make it all work, but nobody thought to throw a wedge of that money at the script. Everything good I could say about the show founders on the bare rocks of the writing. It was funny but there weren’t enough quality gags to make it really funny. The cast was superb with the limited material they were given. The sets were spectacular for a half-hour comedy but were let down by the creaking plots they were meant to serve.
Steve Carell was excellent as General Mark Naird, the head of the newest branch of the US military. He was again playing a familiar role of the dork disguised as a professional. In tone, it’s similar to the role he played in Get Smart, all buttoned up procedure but with a hint of madness. John Malkovich as the Space Force’s chief scientist steals just about everything but, again, still feels wasted in a role that deserved better writing.
The problem is the problem with too many American shows and that’s the propensity towards making us all feel good, although that understates it a bit. Comedy is tragedy plus time, as the old saying goes. It means that the stuff of comedy is often the same as tragedy, but with a degree of distance that buffers the audience from the impact of the existential pain. Comedy is best when it gives us glimpses of something properly dark but doesn’t necessarily have to take us into those dark places. It’s the loop of Steptoe and Son, where the two characters are utterly and tragically bound together. It’s even Captain Mainwaring’s marriage that is comic but also tragic. When America does it well, it does it really well. It makes Curb Your Enthusiasm work. Larry’s analytical approach to life ultimately renders so much of it meaningless and that’s the gag. Community manages it all the time, often taking us down the darkest timeline, or through the mad spiralling madness of Chang. With enough darkness, you can drape as much schmaltz as you like. Without it, you just end up with schmaltz.
And that’s what’s ultimately a bit disappointing about Space Force. It has everything that’s needed to make it great. They have Lisa Kudrow as Mark Naird’s wife. Without spoiling anything (and, so far, there’s not much to spoil) their interactions happen across the security glass of a prison visiting room. Kudrow in prison is a funny concept (especially since it’s not yet clear why… a really clever comic touch) and there are so many references to prison life that it’s genuinely funny. But even this could do with pushing further into the darkness. I hope at some point she emerges wearing a face tattoo.
It’s a pattern that’s repeated so often. Too often the script slips back into sentimentality when really it would be better to go the other way. Naird’s daughter, Erin, played by Diana Silvers, feels like she’s inhabiting a plot dragged from too many other comedies. “Daughter out of place because she’s left the city” has been done too many times. It means her scenes tend to be the least enjoyable. In fact, I can’t think of a single bit about them that was funny. I was going to add “involving” too but there was a bit about pizzas which plucked a heartstring or two.
Then there’s a long segment involving a chimp which, again, I won’t spoil. It’s one of the better parts of the first four shows because it does push the envelope in terms of taste. Yet it’s also the kind of silliness which the show it too often lacking. In fact, scenes involving Don Lake (a regular in the Christopher Guest mocumentaries) that often provide the best laughs, especially when they involve Ben Schwartz as Fuck Tony Scarapiducci, the Force’s media director (and clearly a take on Anthony Scaramucci, briefly Trumps’ media director).
Space Force was also Fred Willard’s last role. He appears a Naird’s father. It was clear Willard wasn’t well. He visibly trembles yet his delivery is good. His lines are among the best in the show and he’s genuinely funny, which given the tragic nature of his performance, makes it especially remarkable.
I’m going to finish the series – there are only 10 episodes – and I hope there are more. I found myself more than warming to it. It might not be as funny as I’d like (or it should be) but it works well enough. The performances are constantly great, and you can tell it’s made with care (and a lot of Netflix cash). If only they had paid a gag writer to go through it and pepper up the scripts with one-liners.