The Netflix absurdist comedy Space Force was an Ars favorite in 2020 and easily won a spot on our annual list of best TV shows. We loved the show’s wickedly sly humor, absurdist setups, and unexpected heart. Space Force is finally back with a second season, and while much of the old magic remains, the show is starting to lose its luster just a bit—perhaps because we only get seven episodes instead of 10 (thanks, never-ending pandemic).
(Spoilers for S1 below.)
As we’ve reported previously, the series was created by Steve Carell and Greg Daniels (who also created Parks and Recreation and Upload). Space Force was inspired in part by the Trump administration’s announcement that it would establish a national Space Force. Carell plays Mark Naird, a decorated pilot and four-star general with dreams of running the Air Force.
But in the series premiere, his dreams for promotion were dashed when he was tapped instead to lead the newly formed sixth branch of the US Armed Forces: Space Force. Naird’s new appointment earned the mockery of four-star general rival Kick Grabaston (Noah Emmerich). Ever the good soldier (or airman, I guess), Naird uprooted his family and moved to a remote base in Wild Horse, Colorado. There, he and a colorful team of scientists and aspiring “Spacemen” struggled to meet the White House insistence on getting American boots on the Moon (again) by 2024, thereby achieving “total space dominance.”
Naird naturally butted heads with his chief scientist, Dr. Adrian Mallory (John Malkovich), a pacifist who has misgivings about working for the Department of Defense. Naird’s wife, Maggie (Lisa Kudrow), was in prison for the entire season, and his daughter, Erin (Diana Silvers), resented having to live in Colorado. The impressive main cast also included Ben Schwartz as social media director Tony Scarapiducci; Jimmy O. Yang as Dr. Chan Kaifang, Mallory’s lead assistant; Tawny Newsome as Capt. Angela Ali, a helicopter pilot who becomes one of the mission’s astronauts; and Don Lake as Brig. Gen. Bradley Gregory, Naird’s adjutant.
Somehow, Space Force succeeded in getting those boots on the Moon—but so did China. In the S1 finale, the joint chiefs of staff were outraged by the Chinese astronauts’ desecration of the Apollo 11 Lunar Flag Assembly (they rolled over it in a rover). Naird’s strategy for a mild attack on the Chinese habitat was overruled by the secretary of defense, who ordered the destruction of the Chinese lunar base, which would likely trigger all-out war.
Mallory threatened to resign, and Naird decided to defy orders. That, in turn, led to Grabaston executing a military coup and taking over Space Force, arresting Mallory and Naird. The US astronauts were told to attack the Chinese habitat with wrenches. They returned from this dubious mission to find that Chinese astronauts had crippled the US base, putting the Americans’ very survival at risk. And… scene!
That first season was inexplicably panned by critics (viewers were far more positive). Maybe those critics weren’t watching the same series, because we here at Ars loved the show, even though Senior Space Editor Eric Berger had some issues with the depiction of the space tech. It’s not The Office, and it’s not Veep, and those are good things.
Space Force‘s approach to comedy is that of a precision scalpel carefully sheathed to avoid inflicting too much damage with its cuts. There’s an underlying warmth and affection for all these fallible characters trying to do something extraordinary, making us root for them even as we laugh at their pratfalls…. Malkovich shines like a supernova as Dr. Adrian Mallory, a committed pacifist, passionate about his science, working for a military operation (“Space should be a zone of wonder, not of conflict and death”). His languid acerbic wit and genteel sophistication are the perfect foil to Carell’s tightly wound, rough-around-the-edges, everything-by-the-book general, who feels deeply but keeps those feelings bottled up, as a good soldier should. Their unlikely friendship, forged in the fires of a nigh-impossible task, is the heart and soul of the series.
Netflix clearly felt the series performed well enough to warrant a second season. The season picks up a few months after the S1 finale. Angela and her fellow astronauts (including the Chinese) manage to make it back to Earth, and Space Force is now subject to a disciplinary hearing before the new administration’s secretary of defense (Tim Meadows). Naird emerges still in charge of Space Force, but the fledgling agency has four months to prove itself—and its budget has been slashed in half.