By Nicholas Cervania, April 29 2021—
Around a year ago, Upload was released as an Amazon Prime original. Created by Greg Daniels, who is probably most well-known for his work on The Office and Parks and Recreation, this sci-fi/mystery show focused around the concept of a digital afterlife. I wasn’t a fan of this show, remembering it as a failed attempt of a high concept sci-fi comedy.
After a few months however, Space Force — also created by Greg Daniels — was released as a Netflix original. After the disappointment of Upload, I had higher hopes for Space Force, thinking that it would be an improvement, since it fell into the more familiar territory of workplace sitcoms for Greg Daniels.
To my disappointment however, Space Force was somehow even worse. So much so that I put off writing this article for a long time because I just didn’t want to watch this show again.
Space Force is a workplace sitcom that stars Steve Carell as Mark Naird, a recently promoted Air Force general who has been put in charge of the United States’ new branch of government — the Space Force.
One of the issues that’s most apparent right from the start is the way that episodes are structured. There are a lot of scenes that exist solely to tell jokes and grind the plot of the episode to a halt. In other words, the show often stops just to tell jokes and this leads to a horrible pace in storytelling. For instance, a scene in the first episode has Mark singing and dancing to “Kokomo” by the Beach Boys alone in his office, which is a little awkward and pretty out of place compared to the tone of the rest of the show. The argument could be made that this is a character-building moment for Mark — this is a scene meant to show the audience what type of person Mark is. But this singing and dancing habit of Mark’s is only ever brought up once in passing and Mark’s behavior is never anywhere near this goofy or childish for the rest of the show. It’s this kind of disconnect between episodes that makes the show feel really disjointed as a whole.
This bad pacing problem is also noticeable when it comes to a lot of the characters, most notably F. Tony Scarapiducci (Ben Schwartz), who shows up in every single episode and never has anything to do with the plot. There are a lot of characters in this series who are just there to grind the plot of the show to a halt and tell boring jokes.
I think this would be less noticeable if the show was actually funny. And I get how subjective that sounds, but even after watching it again I can really only remember three or four jokes that really made me laugh, and I’ve always believed that memorability is the key to great comedy. Most of the jokes are really awkwardly written and the characters deliver them in the most sterile and lifeless manner, but I’ll go into more detail about that later.
For example, when Mark first meets Dr. Chan (Jimmy O. Yang) in the first episode, Mark asks him where he’s from, and Dr. Chan immediately accuses him of questioning whether or not he’s a Chinese spy, which is then dismissed by Mark. This comedic scene falls completely flat. To me, this interaction between Mark and Dr. Chan would’ve been a lot funnier if Mark’s suspicion was more drawn out and apparent, building up Dr. Chan’s accusation a lot more. Instead, we have a joke with a very weak setup and a very blatant and spelled-out punchline — and that’s a problem that most of the jokes in this series fall victim to. I’ve always found that subtlety is important when it comes to comedy. When the audience has to come to their own conclusion for a joke, it’s much funnier, like how censored profanity can often be funnier than uncensored.
Another issue that this show falls victim to is poor directing. For the most part, this show has some pretty funny and well known actors like John Malkovich and Lisa Kudrow, and yet they aren’t able to take the script and make it funny. The poor directing also sometimes extends to the camerawork. The Office and Parks and Recreation were both mockumentaries that had the benefit of being able to do interesting and unique shots. Space Force seems pretty bland and uninspired in comparison, even compared to most modern single-camera shows — but this isn’t the case with all the scenes so this problem isn’t anything major.
However, these issues pale in comparison to what I consider the biggest problem this show has — the characters are not interesting.
One of the ways comedy differs from drama is in the way conflict is handled. In drama, conflict is used to escalate tension or create stakes, whereas comedy uses conflict to create humor. This is why it’s important to have different types of characters in a story, because it ultimately becomes the driving force for conflict. The Office excelled at creating interesting situations based on the four main characters Michael, Jim, Pam and Dwight. Michael Scott had no social skills, but was desperately concerned with what people thought of him, in comparison to Jim who did have social skills but didn’t care what people thought about him, or Dwight who also lacked social skills and also didn’t care what people thought of him. All these characters were different but were still able to fit together nicely.
Mark isn’t the bumbling, immature buffoon that Michael Scott is. Mark’s strongest personality trait is his stubbornness. But the problem with this is that it doesn’t create any interesting dynamics with the other characters like the dynamics between Michael, Jim, Pam and Dwight. And I’m not saying that I wanted Mark to be the exact same character that Michael Scott was, I think that would’ve made the show feel like a rip-off. I’m saying that the other characters need to play off Mark in a cohesive way.
Another aspect where The Office excelled was that much of its comedy was rooted in behavior, rather than the lines alone. The writers and actors were heavily involved in each other’s work and as such they were able to create jokes that didn’t need to rely on heavy setups and punchlines to ensure that jokes landed, opting instead to rely on charismatic performances. In Space Force, Steve Carell is lacking the charisma he carried in most of his other comedies, but to his credit the script doesn’t really give him any chances to. With everyone being in top-level government, almost every character gives their lines in the same static, sterile and lifeless voice. It doesn’t make the characters unique, and it strips them of any sort of personality or individuality. None of the other characters play off Mark well because they don’t have any character themselves.
The problem isn’t that there aren’t enough characters to create an interesting dynamic with, it’s that the characters that are there aren’t fleshed out enough and there’s no connective tissue between any of them.
For example, Dr. Mallory (John Malkovich), one of the main leads, doesn’t really have a personality. He doesn’t have any motivations or character traits and he always delivers his lines in a very stern and enthusiastic tone of voice. Similarly, Dr. Chan, another main lead, doesn’t really have a personality, motivations or character traits and also delivers most of his lines in a very stern and enthusiastic tone of voice.
Dr. Chan is probably my least favorite character. It feels like his character was passed around between a bunch of different writers and none of them could agree on what his personality was supposed to be. In one scene, he’ll be cold and uninterested in anyone that tries to interact with him, but then in the next he’ll be cracking jokes and laughing along with the same people he previously wasn’t interested in interacting with.
The only characters who feel fleshed out are Erin (Diana Silvers) — Mark’s daughter — and Angela Ali (Tawny Newsome) — one of the astronauts part of the Space Force. Angela is probably the only likeable character on the show, having well-defined motivations, character traits and development arc. Erin also has a development arc but it doesn’t really start until the very last episode. But neither of these characters have very many scenes with Mark — we don’t get to see these characters interact with each other outside of a handful of scenes.
Space Force stands out to me as one of the biggest disappointments in television that I’ve seen in recent memory. Maybe it’s because Upload was so bad and I thought this would be better, raising my expectations. A show with this much production value should never have failed this miserably. It feels like the type of project that had a single vision in mind, but as more big names joined in, they all wanted to change an aspect of the show and that vision became muddled with the voices of everyone else. Since the show has already somehow been renewed for another season, hopefully it’ll be an opportunity for Space Force to redeem itself — but as it stands now, my expectations are pretty low.