I once had the terrible idea of inviting an old high school classmate to evening drinks with college friends. There are many reasons why such a soirée can go south, but for those studying or working in international relations, political science, or security studies, our biggest enemy will always be the sick sense of humor inevitably picked up on the job. It’s one of those quasi-mandatory soft skills of any line of work, really, but seldom is black humor as pitch dark as among foreign and defense policy practitioners — save to say, our discussion wasn’t particularly appreciated.
Foreign policy analysts are the latest representatives in the noble lineage of undertakers, priests, and plague doctors: a genealogy of professionals who have to think on an exceedingly big scale to avoid losing their minds over a simple, horrifying truth: the more the world goes to hell, the more their services are needed. This is especially true for the great majority of those who don’t enjoy (so to say) living under the umbrella of the all-powerful, global juggernaut that is the US foreign policy establishment. The job pool is smaller, the toys more mundane. Sure, one is less prone to considering the world as a gigantic board game at which to gamble on other people’s lives and dignity, but on the other hand, frustration is channeled into stupid jokes about nuclear annihilation. How else to exorcise the terrifying power imbued in being perfectly aware that there are man-children playing with trillion dollar weapons, the decay of the international order, and other such niceties without being able to do much about it?
Space Force perfectly delivers the uneasy, humorous bitterness that keeps researchers and policymakers sane. The Netflix original series follows the vicissitudes of General Naird (Steve Carell), head of the titular, newly-formed branch of the US military. He’s joined by a resigned, peace-loving chief scientist (John Malkovich), an ephemeral social media manager (Ben Schwartz), and a up-and-coming helicopter pilot (Tawny Newsome) as they battle for survival against the enemy within and without. Throughout the season, they face a number of threats: the magnificently greedy Keifer Sutherland as an Air Force chief set on reabsorbing the fledging space branch; a knock-off of congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez determined to defund the branch and divert the money towards less glamorous public services; a Russian attaché with an hang for vulgar Americana and pop music; and various bureaucratic monstrosities and technical hurdles.
Of course, there’s also an overarching Big Bad, the one enemy serving as the main off-screen antagonist and raison d’être of the Force: China. The series echoes both real-life developments in military affairs, and the shadow-boxing that’s typical of our era of global tensions. Space Force follows the good old rule of imagining what the world would look like if people unflinchingly followed through rhetoric, including talk of a new Cold War between superpowers. The supposed urgency of a military space race is stretched to its logical conclusion, with the worst case-scenario of a low-intensity war for cosmic supremacy chosen as the world-building premise. Remarkably, this offers a number of hooks upon which the screenwriters convincingly weave characters and setting, but this is not necessarily done in a subtle or delicate manner. To our protagonist, the peril from beyond the shiny sea is taking a detour through low orbit, pushing him to nonchalantly question the loyalties of Asian-American researchers (as well as the spine of European allies). The AOC knock-off and the head scientist judge the whole enterprise in terms of schools and hospitals that could’ve been built by putting the inflated military budget to better use. It’s not subtle humor, which is a put off to viewers who’ve followed Carrell since The Office.
But to be fair, Space Force is neither meant to be subtle, nor really humorous. For one, military satire has always been a difficult endeavor. Just consider the initial discussions surrounding the real space force, in which various US service branches argued under whose auspices it should be put. The US Navy claimed cultural superiority by pointing out that spaceships are, by definition, still ships. The US Air Force argued that everything above ground is air, even when there’s no oxygen. The Marines loudly shouted “Space Marines!” while pointing out that they’re used to multi-domain warfare. It’s hard to outdo what German jokesters call Real satire. But there’s nothing wrong with that: some issues don’t really deserve to to be treated subtly, especially if the guiding question concerns the state monopoly on violence.
Rather, Space Force tries to do justice to the complex connections guiding everyday life in the policy pit: ranging from bureaucratic rivalries, immense performance stress, low-level despair weighing on everyone trapped in government service, and dumb xenophobic generals to idealists and nihilist mid-management. The best scenes are those in which Carrell finally releases all of his character’s self-pity and disappointment in the manliest way possible: hiding in his office and singing Fergie’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry” while trying to live up to his John Wayne persona as his wife is in prison and his daughter is feeling neglected.
When it comes to humor, again, Space Force manages to get out a discomforting laugh, especially in the moments that remind the viewer that, at its worse, international politics is essentially a ridiculous competition between serious children, and at the expense of their citizens. Every episode, even when it goes for the lowest hanging fruit of military obtuseness and machismo, always feels like taking a peek behind the curtains, and beyond them, something we all knew deep in our hearts is revealed: the much-vaunted military-industrial complex is less an evil warmongering empire, and more a bureaucratic and scholarly turf war. This does not make it any less dangerous, or its depiction any less caricatural, but the biggest damage the Trump era has done to our brains has been lowering our standards of credibility to laughable lows.
Whether or not Space Force will amuse you depends on your approach to what Dürrenmatt called a “complete story.” In life, as in the arts, such a story is that which takes the worst, most unlikely turn — even better if at random. Such plots and life stories are grotesque, but not impossible. They are paradoxical, like the current paradigm of defense policy: trying to be decent while pursuing stupid exercises for stupid reasons to avoid even stupider outcomes, likely causing them to occur.