Space Force is too deferential to be satirical

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It’s odd to think of Space Force as a satire, exactly, even though that’s presumably how you’re meant to understand it. Few recent comedies have responded so directly, and so literally, to the Trump era; most have been more oblique in their commentary, and others faltered when all they had to offer was the dim thrill of recognition. (Veep in its final season struggled particularly on that front.) Yet Space Force is altogether more upfront about its inspiration, advertising its real-world premise right from the start.

To recap: in the summer of 2018, Trump announced the creation of a sixth branch of the American Military, the Space Force. It was met with exactly the jokes you’d expect – bad ones – and then it was largely forgotten about, meriting the occasional mention whenever it was in the news again. (The logo looks a lot like the Star Trek logo! Why are the uniforms in a camouflage pattern, what is there to hide from in space?) Everyone moved on, apart from Netflix; looking to capitalise on sub-SNL level twitter memes, they pitched “Space Force” to Steve Carrell, who brought Greg Daniels onboard in turn. The show was announced in January 2019, and that long-awaited reunion was key to its appeal: Netflix’s first trailer boasted “created by the guys who brought you The Office” and “starring Steve Carrell” and little else. Production was quick, and a little over a year later, here it is – the TV show launching before a single rocket got off the ground.

On the face of it, then, it seems obvious what Space Force was meant to be: a satire. Not necessarily a high-minded one, no – it wouldn’t be, the premise is riffing on “President Drumpf is so orange” style twitter jokes – but that’s hardly a problem in and of itself. A workplace comedy that leans into the absurdity of the Trump administration to lambaste its wider failings certainly could work, even if being quite so literal-minded in its approach brings obvious risks with it (is this the moment to debut a comedy about the institutional incompetence of the US government, given everything?).

But Space Force is hardly that at all. If anything, it seems to aspire to be to Trump’s military what Brooklyn Nine-Nine is to the police – it’s far more celebratory than it is critical, and much too deferential in its outlook to broach even the softest satire. At its heart, Space Force fundamentally believes in the value of the actual United States Space Force. That assumed merit underlines the entire programme, preventing the Space Force from ever truly being an object of ridicule – the moral at the end of every half hour quite clear that, no matter how many costly mistakes they might make, or animals they might kill, everyone in the Space Force has a heart of gold. It’s telling, actually, that Carrell, Daniels, and Lisa Kudrow (wasted throughout in a baffling role) each seemed to have convinced themselves that a branch of the army dedicated to space warfare isn’t just a good idea, but a necessary one –  “if we didn’t have one,” Daniels explained in an interview, “we would still need one because of other countries doing the same thing”.

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Quickly, then, it starts to become clear why Space Force’s satire isn’t quite as sharp as one might expect. The viral jokes that inspired Netflix in the first place didn’t, on any level, treat Donald Trump’s proposed Space Force seriously; Space Force, however, takes it (mostly) at face value. There’s something a little strange about how it hedges its bets, actually: Space Force the comedy is quite plainly an effort to capitalise on the widespread mockery the real project received, so you’d be forgiven for assuming the show would follow broadly the same tone. Perhaps in the rush to get the show finished while it was still relevant – it was obviously a speedy production, with Ben Schwartz clearly not in the same room as everyone else for the first two episodes – they forgot why the premise was supposed to be funny in the first place?

But, no, because there is an obvious reason why Space Force is altogether more hesitant in execution than in concept, and it’s likely why Daniels et al convinced themselves of the need for a real Space Force: because ridiculous or not, they’re still the army. “It’s not our intention to go all-out and poke fun at the military. Steve and I both have relatives in the military. We have a lot of respect for all the positives that our relatives have,” said Daniels in one interview, and explained in another that “our goal was to make somebody in the military enjoy the show and not feel like some snotty Hollywood person was making fun of them”.

What should have been the target of Space Force’s satire instead became its target audience – and it never shakes that belief that the military can do nothing wrong. In a smarter show, Steve Carrell’s character would almost be the villain of the piece, with John Malkovich’s Chief Scientist Dr Mallory the lead; more often than not though, Space Force is about learned experts being proven wrong by the infallible instinct of military men. Far from deflating Trump’s supposedly absurd scheme, Space Force buys into the hype and then some.

With that in mind, then, it’s especially striking who Space Force does position as an antagonist. Not Trump; he’s curiously absent. Nor Carrell’s General Naird either, as we’ve established – though there are moments when it seems he might almost be the villain of the piece, likely the lingering remnants of otherwise discarded drafts. Instead, “Anabela Ysidro-Campos” – a lazy caricature of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – is Space Force’s adversary of choice in the first half of its run. (Although that’s a slight misrepresentation: she’s actually “the angry young congresswoman” for most of the time she’s onscreen, only named relatively late in the day.) It’s notable that, for all that Carrell et al maintained this was a non-partisan show, it’s a left-wing politician who comes under most criticism from the show: most of her scenes play as though someone saw the viral clips of Ocasio-Cortez tearing Mark Zuckerberg apart and thought “wouldn’t it be great if he won the argument, and also he was Steve Carrell?”

That Space Force found Ocasio-Cortez an easier target than Trump is unsurprising – and it’s not her politics, in a straightforward sense at least, that come under attack. Rather, their Ocasio-Cortez analogue is worthy of disdain because she dares question the military, instead of accepting it as a simple unassailable good. It’s borne of that obsequious deference to the army that sees Space Force pull its punches time after time. There’s an inclination perhaps to chalk that up to a Netflix executive somewhere, worried about the response if they were perceived to mock the troops – more likely, though, it was just an immediate, instinctive reluctance on the part of those involved.

Whether satire can sustain in an increasingly absurd world is an oft-repeated talking point – probably, to be frank, too often. Space Force, in its attempt to tackle that absurdity head on, illustrates a far more fundamental problem: stripped of any actual critique, lacking any meaningful target, its comedy is inert and impotent. It’s hard not to look at the time and money – especially the money – that went into Space Force and wonder what, exactly, the point of it all was.

Related:

We’ve seen I Am Not Okay With This before, but that’s the point

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