Space Force is Still Looking for Space Legs

Poster_for_Netflix_series_Space_ForceCertain brands of media have not aged well in the era of redcaps and coronavirus and the fracturing of reality, itself, around political ideas. “Parks and Recreation” was a charming little show, that began a bit stumbled and disoriented, but found a stride in the idea that in politics, everyone can still love each other and work together, as long as they aren’t a jerk. In our current climate, it makes even less sense. Our entire communities resemble the nonsensical community forums from the show more than the happy-go-lucky teamwork of government bureaucrats doing their best. Governance has broken down to the point where experienced experts who want nothing more than to be unknown public servants are being dragged through the mud for saying things that are factually true. 

It is hard to divorce the politics of the moment from the aspirational centrism of “Space Force” which is Greg Daniels’ latest effort to lampoon and illuminate a workplace. This one has a distinct SF-nal edge, taking on the relatively imaginary branch of government known as “Space Force” that peeled off of the Air Force. Steve Carell plays the general in charge of this new branch of government, and forms the central figure around which all the chaos and comedy revolves.

I am reminded a lot of the first season of Parks and Rec, when that beloved show was still finding out what kind of show it could be, and stumbling towards the light. I am also reminded of Parks and Rec by the absolutely insufferable and pedantic treatment of the politics that impacts people’s lives. There is a series of politician characters that caricature modern political figures. Notably, there is “That Angry Congresswoman” who is clearly based on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. The way people talk about her, and around her, is horrible and wince-inducing. The rightwing congressman who wants to bomb everyone who isn’t an American and advocates for a flat earth without climate change is not as cringe-inducing because no one talks about him behind his back in such reductive and offensive terminology. No one limits the potential of the right wing figures down to what kind of panties they’re wearing, which is probably one of the most disgusting exchanges of dialog I’ve seen on screen in quite some time. It’s played for laughs that the Air Force General is just a sexist pig, but he is allowed to be by the men in the room, and all of the accomplishments and aspirations of this young woman have been diminished into a sexist joke and the idea that she’s just mean. Her political position, to be clear, even in the show, is to advocate for people who are on food stamps and trying to make a better future for their families despite corruption and racism and institutional indifference. Again, there’s this fantasy middle in Greg Daniels’ universe, where if we all just treat each other kindly, we’ll all find common ground. There is no common ground to be had when young women are reduced to pejoratives.

Again, it misreads the room a great deal. There is a shocking and persistent percentage of society who does not believe whole communities should exist with peace or equality, right now. Presuming that maybe we all just need to treat each other right and be kind to each other is some kind of solution to a universe where many characters belittle and leer at “The Angry Congresswoman” while saying nothing about the flat-earther on the appropriations committee is, itself, a kind of belittling and leering at all the constituents she deftly represents, who don’t have any reason to believe that gosh-darnit if only we were all a little bit nicer and worked hard together and y’all are just not feeling the love…

It’s hard to watch, sometimes, because it misreads the political moment so badly, falling back on the motifs that worked so well in The Office and Parks and Rec, but feel like they come from some lost time. When the show is good, it is exploring the relationship of a father and daughter, and his work mentoring the younger officers around him. When the show is at its best, it is a singular figure that commands the stage. John Malkovich is a treasure, and steals every scene with his precise presence in a frame, portraying a high-level government scientist. He is electric, and seems to be carrying the whole show on his shoulders, currently, and all the best jokes and best, heartfelt moments, seem to be his. Inside the show, he also seems to be carrying the whole government agency on his shoulders, achieving victory out of the jaws of defeat time and time again. I expect to continue watching a while, if only to watch Steve Carrell and John Malkovich at work. Perhaps, like “The Office”, and “Parks and Rec”, Greg Daniels will figure out his show in a season or two and find a path to greatness. I wince at times, and cringe at others, but I hope that the broken politics in the show crosses over into something that doesn’t feel like it was tailor-made for Hollywood’s do-nothing brand of feel-good Liberalism.

Space Force.  *author grimaces and shrugs* Maybe by season three they’ll figure out their business.

Categories: TV shows

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