Space Force review: Netflix comedy struggles to effectively parody Donald Trump’s government

Steve Carell stars in this new satirical show that has a few good one-liners, but there’s not enough funny material for a whole series

Ed Cumming
Tuesday 26 May 2020 14:49
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Space Force trailer

Space Force is the latest series to come up against the problem that has bedevilled satirists over the past five years: how do you parody Donald Trump? When the president announced the creation of the US Space Force in 2018, it sounded like a rejected Mel Brooks idea. With every passing day and tweet, however, the Space Force seems like one of his more robust and sensible policies. Politicians who mean well and take themselves seriously are easy targets for comedy. It’s more of a challenge to find an angle on a president who suggests citizens treat coronavirus by injecting themselves with bleach. Documentary is more effective than fiction when it comes to such extreme self-satire.

If any duo could make something work, it would be Steve Carell and Greg Daniels, the producer who created the American version of The Office as well as Parks and Recreation. With booster rockets full of Netflix wonga and an all-star cast, they have turned the idea of Space Force into the setting for a 10-part workplace comedy. Carell plays General Mark Naird, a thrusting and ambitious military type put in charge of the nascent division, with orders from the top to put “boots on the moon” by 2024. The new posting means he must relocate from Washington to “up and coming” Colorado, with his reluctant wife Maggie (Lisa Kudrow) and daughter Erin (Diana Silvers).

The Space Force base is straight out of Austin Powers, an expensive-looking campus where goons in uniform and scientists in lab coats run around for no apparent reason and Naird is endlessly saluted as he goes from appointment to appointment, sometimes ferried by wannabe pilot Angela Ali (Tawny Newsome).

His main antagonist is the scientist Dr Adrian Mallory, played with scenery-chewing glee by John Malkovich. Unlike the actual Space Force, which is so far a small department with a limited budget, the Netflix Space Force has billions of dollars at its disposal.

In the first episode Naird is keen to test an expensive new rocket in front of a group of visiting congressmen, but Mallory and his team of scientists, especially Chen (Jimmy O Yang), don’t think the conditions are right. Naird must find a way to fulfil the Twitter-crazed president’s orders while navigating a sea of useless advisers, possible Russian and Chinese spies and his troublesome family. Although Trump is never named, the inspiration does not seem to be LBJ.

The opener is dedicated to the late Fred Willard, star of Best in Show and Spinal Tap, who died on 15 May and gives his final performance as Naird’s doddery father, Fred. He would no doubt agree this one-dimensional turn isn’t his finest. As in The Office, Carell dilutes his buffoonery with humanity, and Naird is more likeable than he ought to be.

There are a few good one-liners, as when Naird urges his Angela to embrace her official job title of Spaceman, or encourages a group of schoolchildren to become “space cadets”. But the series struggles to get out from under the biggest joke of all, which is that it is based on a real US government department. It’s material for a sketch, rather than a whole series, and it would be funnier if it wasn’t true.

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