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Steve Carrell plays General Mark Naird in "Space Force" bringing him back to his comedy roots.

When considering Netflix’s new show “Space Force,” starring Steve Carrell and John Malkovich, it's helpful to think of a spectrum along which every politically tinged American TV show can be classified. At one end are shows like “The West Wing” and “Parks and Recreation,” which display benevolent government officials fighting for good and forming a heartwarming workplace pseudo-family in the process. On the other end is “Veep,” a geniusly biting satire that icily cuts to the heart of the arrogance, pettiness and criminality of government officials.

Somewhere in between these two poles lies “Space Force,” a show desperately struggling to find its own identity. With top level talent both in front and behind the camera, “Space Force” still succeeds in individualized moments, but without a tone, the show can never quite get off the ground.

Inspired by the Trump administration's efforts to establish the Space Force as a new branch of the U.S. military, the series follows General Mark Naird (Carrell) as he attempts to lead and legitimize the Space Force despite political opposition. With the help of head scientist Adrian Mallory (Malkovich), Naird must deal with upheaval in the presidential administration and his own personal issues in order to ensure Space Force’s success.

Dealing directly with its political connections, “Space Force” can never quite make sense of its own political affiliations, and with a concept so connected to the present, the speed of America’s current news cycle makes certain story aspects feel almost obsolete. While it may have been easier at a point in the near past to empathize with a character who wastes government resources on a whim and ignores the advice of scientists, doing so now seems to go against all of the dangers raised by the current global health crisis.

Created by famed “The Office” showrunner Greg Daniels, “Space Force” walks an incredibly fine line, condemning the shortcomings of the current presidential administration, but rooting for its armed forces surrogates. Naird encompasses all of these contradictions as a buffoonish military figure who jokes about his previous exploits bombing Middle Eastern countries in one sentence, then attempts to dole out stern fatherly advice in the next.

As Naird, Carrell has a reasonably difficult time parsing through how to handle the character. In some moments, Carrell plays Naird as a moronic militant incapable of reason, similar to George C. Scott’s brilliant performance in “Dr. Strangelove.” In others, Carrell channels the ill-equipped father figure role reminiscent of his own work as Michael Scott in “The Office.”

This combination clearly makes Narid complex, yet the show refuses to treat his character that way, instead grabbing bits and pieces of his personality whenever it suits the material, creating an uneven performance. 

“Space Force” marks a strange point for Carrell’s career post “The Office” as he tries to navigate his way through an ever-changing industry. Following his lauded performances in “Foxcatcher” and “The Big Short,” Carrell’s output has varied in quality, most notably in “Welcome to Marwen,” one of the most disastrous major studio films of the last 20 years. With “Space Force,” Carrell is back to his comedy roots, reasserting himself as an ever-present part of the American pop culture landscape.

Opposite him, Malkovich delivers a surprisingly thoughtful turn as Dr. Mallory. As the scientific counterpoint to Naird’s assertive approach, Malkovich plays Mallory with an enjoyable sense of sincerity and commitment that elevates the whole endeavor to a more professional level. Often serving as a straight man to Naird’s eccentricities, their scenes together are when Carrell is at his best, rising to meet Malkovich’s performance.

Through all of its faults, the reason why “Space Force” may be able to endure is the pure talent of everyone involved. Ranging from recognizable faces like Ben Schwartz and Lisa Kudrow to relative unknowns like Tawny Newsome and Diana Silvers, the ensemble cast provides a certain level of professionalism and value to the whole endeavor. Silvers, in particular, succeeds in separating herself, rising above a slightly underwritten moody teenager stereotype to distinguish herself as a Margaret Qualley-style young actress.

Of all the bit players in “Space Force,” none are as hilarious as the late Fred Willard, who plays Naird’s aging father. Willard, who passed away on May 15, steals every scene he’s in, almost overpowering other actors through brilliant performance and line delivery.

But, with all of these highlights, something about “Space Force” feels broken. By having politician characters like a clear Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stand-in whose character name on IMDB is listed as “AYC” and a congresswoman who’s referred to as “Representative Petosi,” “Space Force” clearly wants to engage with modern politics. When the show chooses to do so, however, the jokes fall flat as references to the president’s Twitter account or his potentially compromised relationship with the Russian government feel overly forced.

Even when the show looks past politics, its understanding of modern American culture feels disjointed. Schwartz, who plays Space Force’s media director, is the main victim of its out-of-touch writing, as his jokes about the importance of tweeting insults at Wendy’s for brand influence feel almost from another era.

With a show this politically focused and wired into modern America, it's almost impossible to view it without noticing the omission of America’s past few months. NASA and SpaceX are set to launch a spacecraft on May 30 after delaying their previous effort on May 27. During most points of American history, this story would’ve dominated the news cycle, yet it currently isn’t. There’s too much happening on Earth for Americans to turn their attention to space.

Contact Chris Carr at carrtc@dukes.jmu.edu. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Instagram and Twitter @Breeze_Culture.