By the time “Space Force” premiered in 2020, it already felt outdated. Even with a starry cast including Steve Carell and John Malkovich, and all the money a Netflix greenlight can afford, its soft jokes about a Trumpian president run amok landed with barely any impact. Carell, who co-created “Space Force” with “The Office” producer Greg Daniels, once played one of the most famous bosses in TV history. But as Mark Naird, Space Force’s commanding general whose characterization veered between hapless and ruthless, he never truly clicked into gear. The shape of a good show was there, even as it never quite materialized. Luckily, “Space Force” got another season to adjust — and so it has, with enough self-awareness this time to make better on its initial promise.
In Season 2, which premieres Feb. 18, Naird finds himself with even less respect and fewer resources than he did when he first got the top job. After the first season closed in a particularly disastrous moon mission, which humiliated the department and traumatized astronaut Angela (Tawny Newsome), prestige and budget have now been slashed to ribbons. This shift takes Naird down a few notches, loosening him and Carell’s performance, both previously as tight as a hospital-cornered bedsheet.
What’s more, characters like Angela, her on-again-off-again flirtation Chan (Jimmy O. Yang, also a writer), Naird’s teen daughter Erin (Diana Silvers), assistant Brad (Don Lake) and publicist Tony (Ben Schwartz, basically playing Jean-Ralphio from “Parks and Recreation” if he went into PR) get more room to flex their comedic sensibilities without shouldering too many narrative twists and turns. And as irritable but kindhearted scientist Adrian Mallory, Malkovich makes up for his relative lack of plot with specificity only he can bring. (Few actors can make a standoff with a stubborn vending machine a fraction as funny as Malkovich and his furrowed brow can.) Still, “Space Force” choosing to shrug off its first season’s bolder, broader material also means that it leaves some of its juicier possibilities on the table. Even an assignment to sketch out counterattacks to a hypothetical alien invasion quickly ends in a gentle interoffice prank war.
In humbling the characters into bigger underdogs than they already were, “Space Force” as a whole both loses its inherent tension and relaxes into itself as a lower-stakes workplace comedy. The result isn’t half as sleek or ambitious as the initial season, but the show at least seems much more comfortable in its own skin. In fact, it almost feels like an inverse of what Daniels and Michael Schur had to do with “Parks and Rec” after its first bumpy season. Instead of smoothing out the kinks by making its bureaucrat protagonist more competent, “Space Force” saps some of Naird’s power to bring him and his co-workers down to Earth.
“Space Force” Season 2 premieres February 18 on Netflix.
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