The newly created US Space Force has provided a lot of laughs since its inception. A TV satire about it is almost as funny as the original, says Simon Ings
26 May 2020
Greg Daniels and Steve Carell
On Netflix from 29 May
As recruitment ads go, the video released to Twitter on 6 May was genuinely engaging. Young people stared off into the Milky Way as rockets of indeterminate scale rolled out of unmarked hangers. “Some people look to the stars and ask, ‘What if?’ ” drawled a voice. “Our job is to have an answer.”
This admirably down-to-earth sentiment was cooked up by the US Space Force, the newest arm of the US military, officially brought into being by president Donald Trump on 21 December 2019.
It has been the butt of jokes ever since. On 18 January, the Space Force showed off its uniforms to Twitter. Apparently there is a use for camouflage in space. Six days later, it revealed its logo, a sort of straightened-out, think-inside-the-box version of the Federation symbol from Star Trek.
Then, the coup de grace: Netflix announced it would be streaming a sitcom about the enterprise, created by producer Greg Daniels and actor Steve Carell.
A lot of expectation has been gathering around this fictional Space Force. Daniels’s writing and production credits include the US version of The Office, Parks and Recreation and King of the Hill. Everyone is expecting a savage parody. So viewing is tempered with the realisation that the real Space Force will outcompete any television satire.
On the same day that the US Space Force’s recruitment video was released, General Jay Raymond, its Chief of Space Operations, had a suggestion for Carell, who plays the Space Force chief in the series, General Mark Naird. “The one piece of advice I’d give to Steve Carell is to get a haircut,” he grinned, during a webinar. “He’s looking a little too shaggy if he wants to play [me].”
I’m glad he can see the funny side. While the fictional Naird and his head of science Adrian Mallory (John Malkovich) spar spiritedly over the launch procedures of one giant-looking rocket after another, in the real world the redoubtable Raymond is tasked with defending US satellites from laser and projectile attack from potentially hostile forces, on a start-up budget of $40 million. There are streets in London where that wouldn’t buy you a house. Meanwhile, the total annual budget for the US military stands at $738 billion.
Space Force the sitcom is, likewise, a labour of love, produced on an obviously low budget. Its small satisfactions take a while to build. Naird’s elevation means the family must relocate from Washington to an old military facility in Colorado (an “up and coming” state, according to Naird. His wife, played by Lisa Kudrow, sobs softly into her pillow).
At work, Mallory insists on taking two steps at a time when he climbs a staircase, even though his fitness isn’t quite up to it: trust Malkovich to make comedy gold out of nothing.
Other cast members underplay themselves. Improv comedian Tawny Newsome, as helicopter pilot Angela Ali, has too straight a role. Silicon Valley’s Jimmy O. Yang gets decent lines, but in demeanour he remains the soberest of Mallory’s team of interchangeable scientists.
Trump wants boots on the moon. American boots. What does that mean? Naird, in a speech, tries to clarify: “Boots with US feet in them, I mean. Can’t be certain where the boots will be made. Maybe Mexico, maybe Portugal.”
This is the main point: what does it mean to make nationalistic noises about space when doing anything worthwhile up there requires massive international cooperation? In one episode, Naird demands to know what the foremost aeronautical engineering theorist in Belgium is doing on his oh-so-secret base. Gently, Mallory explains: The European Space Agency is in on the mission. Belgium is part of the European Space Agency. Belgium is part of Europe.
The show may not quite be the satire we expected, but there is real charm in watching gruff Naird slowly learn to express his feelings.
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Published at Tue, 26 May 2020 08:01:34 +0000
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