'Moonbase 8': TV Review

Moonbase 8 - Showtime Publicity-H 2020
Courtesy of SHOWTIME
Big-name talent, muted comedy.

Showtime's new moon simulator comedy hails from Fred Armisen, Tim Heidecker, John C. Reilly and Jonathan Krisel.

It's not exactly ideal that my immediate response to this Showtime comedy's six-episode first season was to step back and ponder what the show's creators, all extremely funny men, thought was funny about their new series. It's very rare that anything gets more amusing when a "Wait, so what's the actual joke here?" rubric is applied.

I guess the best I can do is explain that Moonbase 8 is supposed to be the inversion of The Right Stuff — the Tom Wolfe book, not the milquetoast Disney+ series. The book is all about what made the Mercury astronauts the perfect men for that assignment and that historical moment, what made them exceptional and representative for the first excursions into space and for the optimism of the ascendant Camelot mini-era.

As conceived by Fred Armisen, Tim Heidecker, John C. Reilly and Jonathan Krisel — like I said, you really can't get a more talented creative team — Moonbase 8 is a celebration of mediocre men rising to mediocre levels in a mediocre moment for America. By that standard, making Moonbase 8 a mediocre comedy could well be a strategic decision and the four creators are nothing if not versed in meta-comedy. So maybe in wishing Moonbase 8 were tighter and smarter and funnier, I'm responding to the show exactly on its intended level — an odd level befitting Showtime's choice of an atypical 11 p.m. time slot.

The series is set at a NASA Moon Base Simulator out in the Arizona desert. Think Biodome or Spaceship Earth, only way further down the hierarchy, because this is not NASA's primary moon simulator, nor are these NASA's primary astronauts. They are, in fact, barely astronauts at all. There's Cap (Reilly), a debt-ridden helicopter pilot from Hawaii basically on the run from creditors. There's Skip (Armisen), the son of a NASA legend who somehow didn't rise to the same level himself. And then there's Rook (Heidecker), an uncertain first-timer with questionable credentials and a wife and 12 kids in his ultra-religious family back home. They're doing menial tasks and accumulating pointless data as NASA authorities string them along with the hope of an eventual trip to the moon, even as they get usurped by one more qualified team after another.

The duties performed by the team at Moonbase 8 are mostly inconsequential blips, while the distractions from the responsibilities are often absurdly heightened. Perhaps the most likable thing the show does is treat all of those blips equally, as if the simulation had the ability to force even things of great weight into interchangeability. So a rivalry with a nearby SpaceX simulation base (featuring a trio of variably recognizable guest stars), tensions with multiple new additions to the base (at least one played by a semi-recognizable guest star whose very identity made me guffaw) and the possibility that raccoons might be breaking into their recycling are made incidents of parallel import. Moonbase 8 is a location that levels everything and everybody to a state of mediocrity in a way I might compare to how Krisel treated the city of Bakersfield as a place capable of draining exceptionalism in FX's marvelous Baskets.

Krisel's droll sensibility is generally evident throughout Moonbase 8, since he also directed the entirety in addition to co-writing every episode with the three stars. We've had several "idiots in space" broad comedies in the past year, led by the mixed bags that were HBO's Avenue 5 and Netflix's Space Force. The strange thing here is that I laughed more when Moonbase 8 was engaging in wackiness — forgive my puerile streak, but Reilly with a scorpion in his spacesuit made me laugh hard — but I respected the show more when its approach to these characters was more muted. There's a natural and appealing pathos to how desperate these three heroes are for this to become a remarkable experience — one that can help them define their lives beyond debt or nepotism or even faith — and how resigned they are to an open-ended exercise in futility that seems to be stretching from days into weeks into years.

But if mediocrity and monotony double as both tone and narrative here, even if they're executed with exactly the intended measure of drab flatness, what's the incentive for viewers to tune in? A lot hinges on the cast and despite their unity as creators, the three stars are rarely on the same performance page. Reilly is a master of building comic personae around treating the mundane as extreme — a trait that has always made him a natural partner for Will Ferrell — and if there are any stakes or sense of desperation that Moonbase conveys, it comes from him. Armisen is playing as many as two or three different sketch characters that rarely add up to an interesting human being — which isn't necessarily a bad thing since Armisen has always played "normal" as a sketch character as well. And Heidecker, in contrast, is underplaying Rook to such a degree that I generally forgot he was there. The cameos that drive the first and fourth episodes deliver enough amusement that I don't want to spoil them, but you should probably feel some caution about a show whose comic strength relies so heavily on secrecy.

Sometimes reviews provide you with a definitive watch/don't-watch binary. Sometimes they're more about adjusting expectations, and I think this is the latter kind. Everybody involved with the show has been responsible for projects that yielded big responses, several quite excellent. Moonbase 8 is, initially, more lackluster even if bursts of humor and humanity break through the subdued (or possibly "subtle," if you prefer) trappings. It could be more or better. Does it want to be?

Cast: Fred Armisen, Tim Heidecker and John C. Reilly

Creators: Fred Armisen, Tim Heidecker, John C. Reilly and Jonathan Krisel

Director: Jonathan Krisel

Airs Sunday nights at 11 p.m. ET/PT on Showtime starting November 8.