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As far as this critic is concerned, the biggest question left dangling after Space Force‘s first season had nothing to do with space wars or jail breaks — it was whether the series might improve by the time it returned. The initial run of Greg Daniels and Steve Carell’s comedy was rocky, but it also ended stronger than it had begun. There was every reason to hope, if not necessarily expect, that Space Force could return better in season two.
The good news is that Space Force does seem to have undergone a much-needed course correction, leading to a more consistent and coherent series. The extraneous satire and off-base subplots have been jettisoned in favor of a greater focus on the central cast of characters, which in turn has allowed Space Force to reveal itself as the more streamlined and sincere workplace comedy it always seemed to have the potential to become.
Airdate: Friday, Feb. 18 (Netflix)
Cast: Steve Carell, John Malkovich, Ben Schwartz, Tawny Newsome, Jimmy O. Yang, Diana Silvers, Lisa Kudrow
Creator: Steve Carell, Greg Daniels
The bad news is that it still doesn’t really work. If season one was just promising enough to seem worth another chance, season two remains just disappointing enough to suggest we don’t need another.
In a meta twist, most of season two revolves around the military branch’s efforts to justify its own existence. Under the leadership of the awkward but righteous General Mark Naird (Carell), they battle bad press, budget cuts and skeptical decision makers. In response, both Space Force and Space Force have grown leaner. Gone are the ambitious missions of season one, like the space chimps and lunar habitats, and the toothless parodies of real-life figures like Elizabeth Holmes and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The bizarre subplot about Naird’s wife (Lisa Kudrow) has been dialed down to almost nothing, and isn’t much missed. Even the episode count has been diminished to seven, from season one’s ten.
Instead, season two offers more comedy set in and around the base, emphasizing the regulars’ personal journeys and the bonds between them. The tone this time is less Veep, more The Office. Episode after episode reaffirms just how much these team members care about each other, and in particular how much they love and respect Naird, who himself has been recalibrated to seem more grounded. He’s still enough of a bumbler to accidentally project a painful and intimate medical procedure to screens all over the office. But he’s less prone to hissy fits and musical outbursts, and he’s ditched the weirdly gruff voice — with encouragement from PR specialist Tony (Ben Schwarz), who echoes audience criticisms of its “manufactured timbre.”
In theory, the show is making all the right moves. The romantic tension between scientist Chan (Jimmy O. Yang) and astronaut Angela (Tawny Newsome) — easily the best part of season one — plays a more prominent role in season two, and even affords Tony a surprising opportunity to show off a softer, sweeter side. Naird’s daughter Erin (Diana Silvers) is given an internship at Space Force, which incorporates her more organically into the goings-on around base. The once-antagonistic relationship between Naird and chief scientist Mallory (John Malkovich) has mellowed into an odd-couple dynamic that can be quite endearing, like in one episode when each man steels himself to gently deliver bad news to the other.
Yet for all this fine-tuning, the series as a whole still feels remarkable only in how underwhelming it is. The plotting remains lax and lumpy. Individual episodes seem to change direction several times before petering out, while serialized arcs spin their wheels before going nowhere. Angela’s mental health struggles after returning from the moon could and should have made for meaty storytelling, but wind up so underplayed as to seem pointless. Meanwhile, much is made of Erin’s entry into the stock market, but very little comes of it by the end of the season. I’d say Space Force needed more time to flesh out some of these narratives, but given how much of the time it does have feels wasted, I don’t know that it’d actually help.
These dramatic shortcomings would be more forgivable if Space Force were uproariously funny. It certainly has its moments, as might be expected from a cast this bright. Malkovich can make a whole meal out of the phrase “blackened Cajun salmon with cranberry vinaigrette.” Don Lake, as Brigadier General Gregory (essentially Naird’s administrative assistant), remains sterling comic relief, tossing off lines like “My wife was abducted by aliens on a business trip and forced to have sex with her boss” with almost unnerving cheer. Schwartz continues to remind us that few are better at playing slightly sketchy but ultimately lovable motormouths. As with so much else about Space Force, however, the jokes feel like they should be better than they are.
By the end of season two, Space Force seems in danger of falling apart completely as its core team ponders their future — whether to pursue other offers and adventures apart from one another, or stay together and fight to keep what they once had. Obviously we’re meant to hope for the latter, for who could root against a fictional gang of tight-knit weirdos? But as for Space Force itself, maybe the best thing the show can do now is call it a day, and free its cast to move on to more exciting new horizons.
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