Klaxons sound and red lights flash inside a Martian base as a celebrity delegation takes residence. Apparently, the last member of their 12-person crew had a hard landing on the red rocks and is now trapped inside a capsule that’s fast losing oxygen. Speeding into action on an eight-wheel rover, a two-person rescue team scrambles to the distressed vehicle in time, but find themselves against the clock again when Ronda Rousey breaks the handle trying to open the capsule’s glass door. “Oh shit,” exclaims Lance Armstrong.
Honestly? It’s fine. A bit of pawing brings the sliding door down easily; inside, the disabled crew member is still very much alive and kicking. “Who is it?” roars Beast Mode, AKA the NFL great Marshawn Lynch, from base control.
“Natasha!” Rousey shouts back over the radio.
“Leggero,” says Modern Family’s Ariel Winter over his shoulder. “She’s a comedian.” And the blank expression on Lynch’s face makes clear he’s never heard of this person, on this planet or any other.
If TV executives seem smug about their cache of unscripted offerings that might fill airtime while union writers picket in front of their studios and union actors consider following suit, it’s because Fox has a legit reality gem in Stars on Mars. Think Survivor on the Red Planet, or Space Cadets minus the Wellesian irony: a dozen boldface names are jettisoned “140 million miles away” to a private installation for a 24-day social experiment on the solar system’s fourth rock – the Australian outback town of Coober Pedy, as it actually happens. Everything they need to survive will require major upkeep, and things inevitably go wrong. Getting them back right takes brawn, brains and teamwork – but everyone isn’t as good a sport as Rousey, indomitable queen of the octagon back when.
Those not deemed mission critical are voted off until a single Earthling is left – “the brightest star in the galaxy”. Contenders run the gamut from tabloid targets (Winter, the nepo baby supreme Tallulah Willis) to the Super Bowl-winning teammates Lynch and Richard Sherman (who definitely bring up the play call that cost them a second ring) to Armstrong and the Bravo supervillain Tom Sandoval – two guys you might genuinely want to launch into the inky void. The actor Chris Mintz-Plasse, of Superbad fame, is keen to get away from the shouting hordes who won’t stop calling McLovin. Even funnier than Lynch immediately doing exactly that was McLovin listening to Sandoval’s elevator pitch for his show, Vanderpump Rules:
“It’s people who work at a restaurant, have sex with each other,” Sandoval explains.
“Jeez,” Mintz-Plasse blushes, “We’re not doing that here, I don’t think.”
They are exactly the kind of rich and pampered space cadets who figure out how to get first crack at civilizing Mars once they’re through cooking the rest of us with their Range Rover and private jet rides. So it fits that their guide on this journey would be William Shatner, the USS Enterprise captain turned Besos cock rocket passenger. Zooming in from Earth, he sets the tone for a series that doesn’t take itself seriously even as its backdrops would have you believing otherwise. The terre battue outback vistas look as authentic as anything Nasa’s Curiosity Rover has beamed home, and the base set design makes Captain Kirk’s Enterprise look, well, stardated.
In the first hour-long episode, Shatner winds down a briefing on the team’s next mission restoring a felled comms tower with a bang. “The hopes of celebrities everywhere rest on your shoulders,” he booms. That a single actor could be so impactful while sitting hands folded with tongue firmly in cheek is the real great leap for mankind.
His crew is just as unpretentious. Armstrong is happy to play the geezer cyclist whose drugs-cheating rise and fall is lost on most of the cast. Winter initially mistakes him for the long deceased moonwalker Neil Armstrong, and Real Housewives of Atlanta fans will no doubt clock the irony of her being set straight by Porsha Williams – the same peach-holder who was convinced the Underground Railroad was an actual transit system not that long ago. Meanwhile, Lynch isn’t here “so I don’t get fined”; he’s the funniest part of the show by yards, kicking things off by appointing himself base commander just to have the camp’s only private bedroom and toilet to himself; he falls asleep on the job as soon as he gets it. “How am I supposed to be the comedian with you around?” Leggero sighs at one point.
The tender beats hit, too. Leggero and Williams bond over the young children they’ve each left behind. Willis is frank about the withering effects of growing up in the shadow of three A-list parents, and Lynch is quick to uplift her when she shrinks from being named mission specialist. With the plot disasters already pre-manufactured, show producers didn’t have to do much more to stir the kind of quiet moments you can imagine a bunch of strangers lumped together in space might have.
For sadistic TV viewers looking to trauma bond, however, Stars on Mars will make a terrible hate watch. It’s too good-looking, too self-aware, too winsome – too fun a summer trip for those of us who’d much rather stay here on Earth.