Some actors will never step out of the shadow of their most famous role. It might be unfair to say this of Steve Carell, who is an Oscar-nominated dramatic actor long after his unparalleled comic performance on The Office (US). And yet for many of that sitcom’s millions of viewers, the ghost of Michael Scott lurks behind many of Carell’s characters, waiting for an inopportune moment to float into view.
Yes, it would probably be mean to make knee-jerk negative comparisons between that show and Netflix’s new series Space Force, which is Carell’s first leading TV role since he left The Office in 2011. Space Force is a different beast: a glitzy, big-budget series co-starring Lisa Kudrow and John Malkovich, it satirises the current US administration by imagining its inner workings during the creation of a new branch of the armed forces, in a bombastic move by Donald Trump (who is not mentioned by name, but is omnipresent as an unseen, farcical force, demanding that air rifles and animals are sent into the atmosphere).
And yet, I can’t help it. As a satire, Space Force is toothless, and so it essentially becomes a workplace comedy starring Carell as the out-of-his-depth but deeply well-intentioned boss of a group of misfits. Except, this time, there are fewer jokes and a lot more clunky exposition about space. The Office found its humour in the constant bubble of well-drawn character dynamics – here, the joke is the simple absurdity of the show’s premise, and punchlines are telegraphed as such.
Carell is one of the most reliably likeable actors I can think of, and it’s hard not to smile as he lip-syncs to the Beach Boys or fluffs an important meeting. But then another improbable plot emerges about a satellite launch, and my eyes glaze over…
This article appears in the 03 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, We can't breathe