The Trump administration operates at a level of chaotic absurdity impossible to adequately satirize.
So with their new show, Space Force, Greg Daniels and Steve Carell decided not to bother.
Although the idea of a show called Space Force from the reunited Office duo may sound like a golden opportunity to rip this administration a new black hole, it’s not an opportunity they were interested in taking. In fact, the show only vaguely alludes to the 45th president every now and again, and it doesn’t drop his name even once.
“We didn’t think it was necessary to give him extra airtime,” Daniels says over the phone. “I feel like there’s a certain amount of fatigue about just the word of his name at this point. You can only hammer away at it so much.”
Instead of taking potshots at the president, Daniels was more interested in reviving the M*A*S*H*-like military comedy, an idea he’d been flirting with since watching a documentary about aircraft carriers a few years ago. At the same time, he and Carell had been looking for a new TV project to develop together, so when an executive at Netflix pitched Carell the idea of making a show about the just-launched Space Force back in 2018, Daniels was eager to suit up and get on board.
When Trump announced his intention to form a Space Force, he was met with a flurry of jokes and derision. Daniels and Carell, however, decided to make a show about the people who have to take the program super seriously. The Netflix series follows four-star general Mark Naird (Carell), who is assigned to lead the new fifth branch of the military, instead of heading up the Air Force, his dream assignment. (He loses that job to rival Kick Grabastan, played by The Americans star Noah Emmerich.) Standing in the way of Naird’s mission is Dr. Adrian Mallory (a prickly John Malkovich), whose measured approach to getting the Space Force up to code conflicts with Naird’s tunnel-vision quest to get “boots on the moon” by 2024. The rest of the cast is rounded out by an impressive menagerie of comedic talent, including many of Christopher Guest’s usual suspects, but Carell and Malkovich are front and center, piloting much of the show’s plot and its laughs.
Carell carries himself with Mike Pence-like stoicism and rigidity as General Naird, and clear surrogates for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nancy Pelosi are indeed on hand, but for a show with such a topical premise, Space Force is rooted in timeless, Veep-like satire. Despite all its current references, the series mostly targets the bureaucracy, incompetence, and machismo of American military might, rather than the occupant of the White House. Some shade inevitably does flow the president’s way (“Expect a nukestorm on Twitter,” one character says after the unnamed POTUS gets some not-great news on his birthday), but the Space Force team set their sights a bit higher than Orange Man Bad humor.
“There’s certainly comedy that we’re going for in all directions, but we didn’t want it to be a super angry partisan thing, which I guess was some of the expectation,” Daniels says. “I think it’s a little bit more subtle to do it through the method of a character comedy than to just be hammering away directly at it. We’re trying to present a positive and optimistic vision for how people can come together more to do something audacious that was really a symbol of America at its best when we went to the moon. So I want to make sure that we honored the coolness of that initial idea.”
The show’s tone fluctuates between grounded workplace comedy and heightened, space-set absurdity, with tender moments of earnestness in between. Daniels and Carell clearly relish the opportunity to break the bonds of gravity entirely after being confined to the mundanity of Office life in their last collaboration.
But as broad as Space Force gets, it still has a hard time competing with the bizarre nature of our current reality. The show’s Netflix premiere comes within days of the actual Space Force rolling out its first ad and Trump’s Oval Office flag-unveiling.
The timing is so comically absurd, it’s exactly the sort of thing Daniels avoided doing within the show.