The challenge facing Steve Carell and the mastermind behind his career-making turn in NBC's "The Office" is to render their hotly anticipated Netflix series, "Space Force," funnier than the real neo-government agency founded by an increasingly unhinged president of the United States. Good luck with that.
Yet, while failing to reach orbit, Carell and show-runner Greg Daniels summon just enough thrust to puncture our COVID-19-filled atmosphere with a mix of droll humor, stumbling satire and warm snuggly relationships. Laughs? I had a few, but far short of those to be had in a single episode of "The Office." I'm also not a fan of the vague character arcs, episodic format or a disappointing tendency to play it safe.
So, what's the lure? Carell, that's what! The part-time Marshfield resident is huge in his three-dimensional characterization of fictional four-star Air Force Gen. Mark Naird, the newly appointed director of Trump's much-ridiculed Space Force. The agency, natch, is announced in a Tweet promising to put "boobs (sic) on the moon by 2024." And it's up to Naird and his multi-billion-dollar budget to make it happen. But before achieving liftoff, Naird must first conquer the New Frontiers of an imprisoned wife (Lisa Kudrow), a selfish, rebellious daughter (a terrific find in Diana Silvers) and a temperamental scientist (think Tony Fauci) in John Malkovich's marvelously cranky and cantankerous Dr. Adrian Mallory.
The three have Baird questioning his sanity; all while POTUS (never seen or named, but obviously Trump) and money-pinching lawmakers, including a thinly veiled AOC (Ginger Gonzaga), tighten the screws on producing a major success before the first season wraps. It's never a doubt the project will be a GO! But reaching those aspirations often results in a clunky trajectory driven off course by jittery plotting by Daniels' team of writers alternating between being too slow and overly rushed.
They throw more than a dozen characters at the screen in hopes of seeing who will stick long enough to reach Season 2. Some, like the late, great Fred Willard as Naird's senile father, and Noah Emmerich as the general's macho rival and former boss, are forgotten almost as soon as they're introduced. Ditto for brief cameos by Jane Lynch and Patrick Warburton as Naird's fellow chiefs of staff. The characters that do thrive are all impressive, including Jimmy O. Yang ("Silicon Valley") as a young hot-shot engineer and Tawny Newsome as a wannabe astronaut catching his nerdy eye. By the way, I could do without Ben Schwartz's obnoxious, over-the-top turn as Baird's hyper, Tweet-happy publicist, Tony Scarapiducci, a too obvious send-up of real-life manic Trump trumpeter Anthony Scaramucci. But the less said about him the better.
What about the positive? Well, that begins with Carell, the sitcom's center of gravity. As co-creator of the big-budget series, he conjures a role geared to his strength, namely his uncanny ability to shift on a dime from comedy to drama and back. To portray a general who also happens to be a war hero (his F-15 was shot down over Serbia), you must exude gravitas, which Carell does well in creating a four-star general you can believe in. Not sure what's up with Naird's gravelly voice, but you remain impressed by how well Carell fills the uniform, both physically (love those stiff straight shoulders) and psychologically.
He's particularly strong opposite Malkovich. Their give and take -- military might vs. a better tomorrow through science -- is always compelling as it is thoughtful. And the hard-earned friendship developing between the two opposites is often unexpectedly moving. Same with Naird's frayed relationship with his 15-year-old daughter, Erin (or Bug, as he calls her), whose cries for attention too often go unheeded. Carell and Silvers ("Booksmart") prove outstanding sparring partners thanks to the unmitigated spunk they bring to the fight.
And don't get me started on how wonderful Carell and Kudrow are together, particularly in the episode sending them stumbling their way through their first conjugal visit. But why are the writers concealing the reason for Maggie Naird's "very long sentence"? That's just one of the glaring plot holes in a storyline with all the traits of having been rushed into production to capitalize on the freshness of the real Space Force being ripe for ridicule.
The production design, though, is feature-film quality; including a convincing moon landing and a sprawling, clandestine Space Force base in the desolate Colorado foothills (You'll love the nod to "Get Smart" in the opening of Episode One), a la Area 51. It's neat how it resembles a thriving avant-garde college campus more than a hub for a fledgling service branch fighting to not just earn credibility, but struggling over whether it's mission should be one of peace or one -- as Dr. Mallory says -- of "turning space into an orgy of death." Despite its intent of parody, "Space Force" treats the debate with utter respect before making it a major plot point in the thrilling season-ender.
It's good stuff. And after a slow start, "Space Force" starts to come together just when it's time to create a cliffhanger promising a likely Season 2. It deserves that opportunity on the strength of Carell alone. But if it's to be, you'd like "Space Force" to evolve into something a little less earthbound and a little more out of this world.
This article is written by Al Alexander/For The Patriot Ledger from The Patriot Ledger, Quincy, Mass. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.