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Mystery Science Theater fans rejoice! Our beloved Joel Hodgson has been found. The man who, in the not-too-distant future, braved “Manos”: The Hands of Fate among other cinematic stinkers is part of the excellent ensemble cast of Freaks and Geeks creator Paul Feig’s very funny outer space comedy. (Embarrassment of riches alert: He’s joined by his MST3K costar Trace Beaulieu as a Crow T. Robot-like mechanical wisecracker named Art.)
This time it’s the really distant future when, as an opening title card informs us, the end of the war between the United States and Switzerland (heh!) has resulted in the creation of the Universal Mapping Project (UMP), the goal of which is to explore and chart the known cosmos. Potential pilots for UMP vessels are trained in high-stress-inducing simulators, and the lackadaisically self-confident Stewart Lipinski (Safety Not Guaranteed’s Karan Soni) gets high marks after he destroys a synthetic asteroid by making the ship “fart-sneeze.” (It’s that kind of show.)
Soon enough, the powers-that-be give him his own craft with a crew that includes his steely, jealous sister, Karen (Bess Rous); his unrequited crush, Tina (Milana Vayntrub); his best friend from childhood, Michael (Eugene Cordero); a science officer, Kent (Neil Casey), with a mysterious past; Hodgson’s pothead hippie of an engineer, Zalian; and a bodacious-looking virtual navigator, Natasha (Conor Leslie). No sooner have they left port, however, than they’re sucked into a wormhole that deposits them in an uncharted area of the universe with no way home and only a yearlong supply of fudge to sustain them. (Damn broken food tank!)
The comedy is crude and sarcastic, but rarely gets tiresome because the actors play off of each other expertly, suggesting depths of feeling beneath every arched eyebrow. (To this end, Soni’s and Rous’ sibling rivalry is especially potent, since neither brother nor sister is ever without fault in any given situation.) Other Space’s primary goal, however, isn’t to get overly dramatic but to bust the gut.
At this it more than succeeds. The wardrobes and production design are like Star Trek by way of Uniqlo. One of the cleverest gags concerns an alien who speaks only in Matthew McConaughey quotes (everything from EDtv to True Detective gets referenced). And there are a number of terrific visual throwaways, like the moment when the crew momentarily regresses to a literally infantile state while traveling through the wormhole. (Leslie’s buxom AI hilariously turns into a game of Pong.)
Based on the three episodes sent out for review, an overarching story does appear to be developing. Imagine Battlestar Galactica’s journey-home narrative filtered through a Mike Judge workplace comedy, peppered liberally with the ribald humor and emphatic obscenity in which Feig films like Bridesmaids and The Heat revel. “Goddamn” is the curse word of choice (the way Rous spits it out is pure profane poetry), and there’s a mother-love incest backstory for one character that, when introduced, seems like it’s pandering to the cheap seats, until, in a later episode, it takes on a strangely poignant dimension.
That might be the ultimate achievement of Other Space — its power to surprise. Just when you think you’ve got the show’s sense of humor pegged, it startles you with an off-kilter jibe or some acutely raw emotion, as in a scene in which Karen breaks down after one of the crew seems to have been vaporized in the vacuum of space. Thus far, Feig and his collaborators have found the right balance of humor and gravity for this celestial comedy. Here’s hoping they can sustain it the deeper into the cosmos this motley crew goes.
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