If there were a way to watch Netflix’s new series Space Force without any of the dialogue, you might mistake it for a drama from happier times. The show’s score, which pops up intermittently in wafts of softly rousing strings and trumpets, seems to consciously evoke The West Wing; in one episode, it crescendos emphatically while a troupe of astronauts marches out from an aircraft hangar toward a shining gold horizon. The directors include significant names from the film world: Dee Rees (Mudbound) and Paul King (Paddington). Space Force’s set alone, which replicates a boondoggle of a U.S. military base in Colorado, is so sprawling and detailed and shiny that it feels like it should belong to a James Cameron movie, not a Greg Daniels workplace comedy. At a time when entertainment has adjusted to lo-fi spectacle—the Zoom sketch-comedy show, the TikTok satire, the art of performative bookshelving—the obvious expense of Space Force almost feels unseemly, even without the reported $10 million Steve Carell was paid to star in it.
But then there’s the show itself, which is so strange and ill-conceived and ill-timed that not even Carell’s avuncular bonhomie can save it. For all its cinematic trappings, Space Force is a series with a single joke running through it, and that joke is American idiocy. The show was supposedly dreamed up a few years ago when President Donald Trump announced the founding of a sixth, extraterrestrial branch of the armed forces, a project so absurd that most people just carried on living their lives without really processing that it was real—barring occasional reminders in the form of Star Trek badges and Scientology-vague recruiting ads. A grandiose, totally unnecessary, obscenely expensive militaristic monument to one man’s porcelain-dainty ego! What could be funnier? Right?
Two years later, though, amid the wreckage of a bungled pandemic response that in three months has cost America 100,000 lives and 40 million jobs, it’s harder to laugh at what Space Force is offering: baffling tonal dissonance, flimsy characters, and an unresolved subplot that, by the end of the 10th episode, was the only thing I still had half an interest in. Daniels is famous for creating TV shows with dubious first seasons that get better significantly over time; watch The Office or Parks and Recreation on Netflix to see series consciously tweak themselves and their protagonists to make them more appealing. But with Space Force, there’s not much imaginable that could make the show pleasurable to watch (excepting maybe an election). The joke isn’t on us; it is us. Pointless wars, corporate grift, the sassiness of fast-food brands on Twitter—the awful and rotten aspects of modern life are served up here as soggy punch lines, not caustic enough to really burn as black humor, and not winsome enough to simply enjoy.