'For All Mankind': TV Review

Fine but familiar.
11/1/2019

The AppleTV+ series is a solid effort at epic, alternate-history storytelling, but feels a bit derivative and moves too slowly.

It looks expensive, it was co-created by Ronald D. Moore (who did amazing space things with Battlestar Galactica) and it has an impressive cast — those are the first and most obvious things viewers will see in For All Mankind, the new AppleTV+ drama that premieres Nov. 1.

What takes a little longer to figure out — too long for some, no doubt — is that there's not a lot of fuel in the rocket tanks. For All Mankind is a sprawling, alternative-history take on what would have happened if the United States had lost the space race, falling second to the Soviet Union and then falling behind again when it put a woman on the moon. 

When you start thinking about what For All Mankind could have done with an alternative-history approach, kind of like what Amazon's The Man in the High Castle does on Amazon, it's a little disappointing to see that, through seven of 10 episodes, there's not much done with the concept (other than Ted Kennedy became president after Richard Nixon and some equally minor tweaks). It's ultimately just a narrative contrivance to put our country behind and make it angry with an inferiority complex, setting up a plan to get there quickly and get women up there kinda quickly and then maybe set up a military base there, because that's what Nixon is really pushing for as the American political interest revolves mainly around the U.S. versus the USSR. 

Which is fine but familiar, even in this alternative history world.

Unless some major twists pop up at the end, it seems like a lot of work for what ultimately becomes a story about astronauts and their wives (and husbands), with some social commentary tossed in when needed. The oddest thing about For All Mankind, which Moore created with Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi, is that you're thinking it will be something other when ultimately what it becomes is something more. Its ambition rests on multiple characters and plotlines, with a decreasing sense of interest the more numerous they become (not to mention a lag on the pacing, which could use some of the aforementioned jet fuel to move things along).

The series comes roaring out of the gate hell-bent on setting up two of its defining elements: (1) Damn it all to hell, it's a "Red Moon" now that the Russians beat us there and (2) If those Communists thought we weren't up to the task of rebounding, well they can just suck some exhaust from our All-American flyboys and their jets and plentiful (and colorful) Corvettes, because this space race is on!

The world building between the Houston headquarters of NASA and the Florida setting of the launch meshes nicely with the intricately detailed sense of time and place that the clothes, houses, cars, attitudes, consumer items, television and the rest denote. But there's a familiarity there as well from every astronaut/space movie you might have seen (though again, it's still visually impressive).

The stories tend to be plodding. Part of that is that outside of the women-in-space angle, introduced in episode three ("Nixon's Women"), we get a lot of astronauts-are-rock-stars and their-wives-could-not-be-more-proud-of-them, once again too familiar by half even though two excellent actors, Joel Kinnaman and Michael Dorman, play the leads.

While Apple+ is new to television, Moore certainly isn’t and neither is Sony Pictures Television, which made the series, but there's that Netflix-like plodding nature to it, as if, TV gods forbid, it wants to be a 10-hour movie rather than episodic television. You'll find some urgency as episodes wrap, but not a lot. And there's no doubt that the world For All Mankind wants to build is populated with an almost staggering number of people, each getting bits of story, but outside of the women-going-to-space idea, not a lot of it is particularly interesting.

Kinnaman (Hanna, Altered Carbon) is Ed Baldwin and Dorman (Patriot) is Gordo Stevens, and they were piloting Apollo 10 but their orders were not to land. That opened the doors for the Soviets and Nixon is furious and wants the head of Wernher von Braun (an excellent Colm Feore), who is now resisting the idea of militarizing the moon. With Ed grounded for lashing out about being second, NASA is in turmoil, catching flak from the public and the president, with Deke Slayton (Chris Bauer), who heads up the astronaut program (and crew assignments), and Gene Kranz (Eric Ladin), who runs Mission Control as NASA's flight director, trying to hold it all together. For All Mankind weaves in real-life characters with fictional ones in its quest to tell these epic stories, but it sometimes feels as if adhering to history is a hindrance.

Wrenn Schmidt (The Looming Tower) is compelling as Margo Madison, the first woman at Mission Control and a confidante of Von Braun; Sarah Jones (The Path) gets a little more to do than play Gordo's wife when, as a former pilot, she's pulled into the female astronaut program (mostly for the good PR), while Shantel VanSanten (The Boys), has to be the stoic wife we've seen so often in shows like this.

While there are plenty of "supporting" roles here, and it reaffirms that the casting is excellent, the scene-stealers are probably Sonya Walger (Lost) as Molly Cobb, one of the most veteran of the female astronaut candidates (and the one with the most swagger), and Lenny Jacobson, who plays her anxious, artist husband Wayne with heart and humor. 

The trouble, though, is pretty evident early on — in fact, startlingly so, as the show introduces in its very first moments a young girl in Mexico, Aleida (Olivia Trujillo), watching the moon landing with her ailing mother and worried father, Octavio (Arturo Del Puerto), who will eventually immigrate to the U.S., where Octavio gets a job at NASA as a janitor and the series very slowly and randomly comes back to their story. It's not hard to figure out where it's going, though it's hard to figure out why Moore, Wolpert and Nedivi want to unpack so many characters so quickly, dulling the show's forward momentum.

Guessing fairly easily where things are going is a problem in For All Mankind, because if the plot is familiar and also dragging at the same time, you've got issues. Outside of the first episode, which tries admirably to really set a tone, the only pace-quickening comes with the female astronaut training and the only intriguing stand-alone episode is the seventh, "Hi Bob," which is funny and weird and plays on isolation and exterior threats (and does it so well you forgive that an episode about doing nothing is wedged into a series too slow to do much).

The question for Apple+ is whether anyone will have the time to invest in a series like this, even though it's already been renewed for a second season. Maybe things will pick up near the end and maybe people will float through space and find themselves there despite more alluring offerings elsewhere.

Cast: Joel Kinnaman, Michael Dorman, Sarah Jones, Shantel VanSanten, Wrenn Schmidt, Colm Feore, Chris Bauer, Eric Ladin, Wrenn Schmidt, Dan Donohue, Jodi Balfour, Krys Marshall, Lenny Jacobson

Created by: Ronald D. Moore, Matt Wolpert, Ben Nedivi

Directed by: Seth Gordon, Meera Menon, Allen Coulter, Sergio Mimica-Gezzan, John Dahl, Michael Morris

Premiering on AppleTV+ on Nov. 1