Space Force: Insightful political comedy or a cringe-worthy irrelevance? 

PHOTO BY NASA VIA UNSPLASH

We live in a political climate that is complex, tribalistic and marred by deception. Alongside our divided society exists the mirror reflection of  fiction, specifically satirical fiction. This is where Space Force comes in. Much like the many bickering factions in our society, the many sections and divisions of Space Force’s headquarters are always pointing fingers at each other, while the show’s primary protagonist, General Naird – who is played by Steve Carell, attempts to hold the sinking ship together, always reiterating the slogan ‘boots on the Moon’. Within the HQ of this newly formed branch of the American armed forces, the familiar genre of the office comedy rears its head. While Carell is, to a degree, comfortable in a show so reminiscent of his breakthrough role in The Office US, the show itself clearly piles its plate far too high. Ambitiously attempting to satirically engage with America’s stagnating bureaucracy, geopolitical wrangling and new social media-oriented (millennial) interactions, Space Force falls painfully flat.

 

The latter of these attempted engagements is painful because it reminds me of a joke an out of touch uncle might make about Gen-z/Millenials. Specifically, it is the character, or should I say caricature, of Tony “Fuck Tony” Scarapiducci that comes to mind. This character’s nickname, Fuck Tony, is never really explained. When searching to see if I was just missing a trick, I was amused, but not surprised, to find that there are a couple of Reddit threads devoted to figuring out why he is called Fuck Tony, with no coherent answer in sight. Tony is Naird’s PR assistant, who runs Space Force’s Social Media accounts, and his role does reflect the increasing focus of corporations and governments on using social media to enhance their image. That being said, almost none of his jokes land, with the viewer being forced to watch a cringe-worthy run of the mill ‘kids these days sure love their gluten-free meals and phones, don’t they?’ kind of gagline over and over. It is not a defence of millennials/Gen-z that I am rallying to here, as there are ways to make fun of those two generations and their behaviour. However, Space Force’s attempts are hopelessly out of touch. For example, Tony being insistent that ‘flex’ is the right word to use when Naird just wants to say something more traditional is set up by the show as a hilarious point of contention between the two characters. It is about as funny as falling over at your graduation ceremony; it hurts both physically and emotionally and only people with a borderline sociopathic sense of schadenfreude will laugh. 

 

The second dimension the show attempts to make fun of is the geopolitical arms race and a hegemonic wrestling match between America and China. Throughout the show, China is always shown to be one step ahead of America, with Space Force’s first satellite launch being dismantled by a Chinese satellite unscrewing the American satellite’s solar panels, so as to render the latter powerless. Indeed, throughout the show, China’s acts as a larger and more threatening opponent for both Space Force and America. Though there are local antagonists, such as the Air Force’s General Grabaston, China is the ultimate bad guy. Though the show’s approach to this is the all too familiar American good guy vs Chinese/Russian bad guy, it is a bit clunky, and at points the show attempts to reverse the contrast, with the Americans being the bad guys. In the end, of course, good ol Regan-style American exceptionalism wins the day and proves that, while the Americans have some bad guys on their team, it is DEFINITELY the Chinese who are the real villains. This is frustrating as the show attempts to acknowledge America’s hawkishness on the world stage. Sure the Chinese governmental model isn’t a good one, but America is also hardly a utopia and some greyness would have been a refreshing change. Ultimately, it felt like the writers were too afraid to annoy their mostly American audience, by pointing out America’s geo-political failings in too obvious of a manner. This was strange as it seems like the show is desperate to capture the hearts and minds of America’s centre-left/left, who mainly want more a leftward swing in America policy, though a limited one. It is also worth mentioning that the show attempts to attract younger audiences – but, since a lot of gags they bring to bear aren’t funny if you have the most basic of internet terms in your vocabulary, don’t expect to be rolling around with laughter.

 

The aforementioned target audience in mind, Space Force satirically attacks America’s stagnating democracy. Particularly, it is the military-industrial complex that bears the brunt of the show’s attention. However, the republicans get a fair bit of attention too, with a one republican senator stating that he is happy to fund anything that ‘rain[s] God’s holy hellfire upon [America’s] enemies’, before stating that he loves the satellite protection Space Force offers to ‘[this] majestic flat earth’. There was a somewhat humorous exchange here, but nothing special. There were also some pot shots taken at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), with a ‘young angry congress-woman’, that you don’t need to be Ben Shapiro to recognise is clearly modelled on AOC. All of the generals are afraid of her and the dynamic is kind of funny, until it gets weird. For example, at one point, General Grabaston remarks, behind this fictional AOC’s back, that he can see her ‘panty lines’. Our main protagonists then have a minute long conversation about whether panties exist that don’t produce panty lines. While not a downright misogynistic or pointless conversation, since it technically makes Grabaston a more dislikeable villain, the exchange was tedious and, in my view, strange. All-in-all, the grilling General Naird gets for Space Force’s exorbitant budget is lack luster and the character’s clumsy metaphors on how the world is like a fragile ‘orange’ are not amusing or particularly coherent, but seem to be enough for congress and, given the way the show frames the end of the hearing, it is portrayed as a revered moment of victory – which demonstrates a disconnect between what the viewer actually sees and what the show wants you to see. Naird and Space Force narrowly escape evisceration by claiming that Space Force has the scientific potential to help mankind, in addition to its military commitments. This would have been an intriguing dynamic for the show to follow, as a conflict had, up until this point, been set up between Dr. Adrian Mallory (played by John Malkovich) and Naird over the trajectory of Space Force: peaceful scientific organisation, akin to NASA, or a militaristic Air Force in Space. Unfortunately, the show drops this angle and you end up feeling short changed that such a point of global contention, America’s gigantic military budget, is given as much attention as a congress woman’s panty lines. I don’t believe the show was trying to make a deeper point about American mismanagement here. Rather, the show was too busy playing a juggling act trying to address so many deep political facets at once.

 

One thing Space Force did get right was the use of vague allusions when addressing President Trump, who is never mentioned by name but instead called POTUS (President of the United States). I believe directly introducing a character modelled on Trump would have been a mistake, possibly because the absurdity of the Trump administration is so profound it renders satire irrelevant.

 

My view of Space Force is perhaps best summaried by Sophie Gilbert summary on Rotten Tomatoes: ‘So strange and ill-conceived and ill-timed that not even Carell’s avuncular bonhomie can save it. For all its cinematic trappings, Space Force is a series with a single joke running through it, and that joke is American idiocy.’

 

Overall: 4/10. Space Force had potential to reach the stars with the material modern America has provided it. Unfortunately, it barely broke out of the atmosphere before falling into a decaying orbit.

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