Plenty of shows have landed glancing blows on the Trump administration, but TV has yet to crown its one true culture-representing Trump show. That’s a designation that Space Force, Netflix’s new 10-episode collaboration with The Office creator Greg Daniels, appears keen to claim for itself. The title and general countour of the premise originated with a March 2018 speech from the current commander-in-chief, in which his watery brain emitted the decree that America would achieve supremacy in the hotly contested region of outer space with the establishment of a brand new branch of the armed forces. So it had been declared, and so it was; by December 2019, space force was an independent entity and beginning our Starship Troopers-style conquest of the stars.
Daniels’ series would ostensibly train its satirical crosshairs on the abundant, self-evident stupidity of this enterprise, and through it, the antagonistic senselessness of Trumpism as a political philosophy. In the debut season, a handful of references to an unnamed “Potus” (what could possibly be the point of playing coy?) always signal the sort of casually issued orders from on high that would generally come from a clueless blowhard executive, which is what Trump is. But the show on the whole doesn’t just fail in an attempt to reckon with the zeitgeist, the literal “spirit of the times”; Daniels hasn’t even made the effort to dissect his subject. It’s a show about Trump’s military-industrial complex without a single trace of complexity.
Daniels turns the sixth department of the armed forces into an unusually high-budget instance of the wacky workplace sitcom, with his old leading man Steve Carell in tow once again as star and co-creator. But Mark Naird, the eternally frazzled four-star general running the show, bears only the faintest resemblance to irritating-yet-endearing boob Michael Scott. Naird’s a competent, dedicated company man who only comes undone due to the zany incompetence all around him. The series begins with him discussing his dream of being a great military leader, just before he’s assigned his new detail and made the mockery of his peers in the Marines, navy, air force and army. (In one of the better jokes, everyone dumps on the coast guard, even those clowns at space force.) The moment raises an early red flag, in that this scene’s writing ask us to take the nobility of military service seriously.
“It’s not our intention to go all-out and poke fun at the military,” Daniels said in a recent interview with Vox. “Steve and I both have relatives in the military. We have a lot of respect for all the positives that our relatives have.” Respect and deference, historically, have not been the most successful starting points for satire. But Daniels sees the politicians behind the scenes as the target of his jabs, per that same interview. “[Mark] is being squeezed between politicians who are really anxious to get on the moon as fast as possible in a kind of neocolonialist scramble, and scientists who don’t necessarily agree with the aims of the program and are hard to understand.”
The terms of the comedy come into focus in light of that soundbite, with Mark and his science adviser Dr Mallory (an ever wonderful John Malkovich) the odd couple forced to work together if they want to transcend the inept management in the White House. But the nature of the friction and gridlock generated by mystery Potus scans as utterly disconnected from the furious, incoherent brand of chaos reigning over the Trump administration. The functionaries at space force receive the occasional eccentric missive from the top; the first lady wants to redefine their uniforms with Star Trek-ish capes in one episode, and the order to ramp up space force comes from a tweet calling for “boobs on the moon”. (That’s a hopefully misspelled “boots”.) It all makes the president sound like any other clueless boss, only with more power and a boyish taste for the fantastical and impressive. It is, in this respect, much closer to a toothless would-be takedown of the Bush administration.
If a viewer reads the series as a commentary angled instead toward the high-ranking officials trapped in the Trump orbit, it still doesn’t hold together. Daniels reproduces the popular liberal myth of the well-intending Trump flunky, a cabinet member or top adviser covertly working to better the administration. These fantasies are just as unproductive in fiction as they are in real life, promoting the mistaken idea that someone can be a collaborator and a patriot at the same time, instead of simply complicit. To return to the Vox interview once more, Daniels comes right out and describes Mark as “trying his best”, a phrase unbefitting any member of Trump’s circle.
The other, more pedestrian issues with the show – multi-episode subplots that go nowhere, overwrought family drama, an egregious deployment of the Beach Boys’ accursed Kokomo – seem like lighter offenses in comparison to Daniels’ garbled ambitions. He’s at something of a disadvantage, in that his show arrives while Americans divide their attentions between the stifling pandemic and the nationwide eruption of state-sponsored violence against protesters. Even in a kinder climate, however, Daniels’ broadsides against Trump would be pitifully inadequate. For his gentle prodding to succeed, it would require a climate so kind that somebody else would be in the Oval Office.