Netflix’s 'Space Force’ is a biting satire of the defense industry

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The reviews are already rolling in for Netflix's highly anticipated workplace comedy, Space Force, and they are less than flattering.

Now, maybe it's because I didn't go into Space Force looking for a shot-for-shot remake of The Office in moon camo (and yes, that's what they wear in the show), but frankly, I thought it wasn't half bad. 

Created by Greg Daniels and Steve Carell (The Office), the series stars Carell alongside John Malkovich, Ben Schwartz, Tawny Newsome, Diana Silvers, Jimmy O. Yang, Lisa Kudrow, Fred Willard, and Jessica St. Clair, which sounds like a recipe for pure comedic genius. So why does it seem like a dud to some viewers?

The answer is relatively simple: the show is less the workplace comedy that people expected and more a satire of the entire military-industrial complex. As a show, Space Force revels in making a mockery of those at the highest levels of the federal government at large, and the military in particular, in much the same way that Netflix's War Machine did with its portrayal of the war in Afghanistan.

Some moments will seem eerily familiar to viewers at home. In the series' first episode, the Secretary of Defense tells the Joint Chiefs of Staff that “POTUS wants to make some changes. He’ll be tweeting about it in five minutes, so let’s hope you like what you hear,” before announcing that Carell’s character, the freshly promoted Gen. Mark Naird, will be the head of the military’s newest branch, Space Force.

“Our nation’s internet, including Twitter, runs through our vulnerable space satellites. POTUS wants complete space dominance. Boots on the moon by 2024,” continues the Defense Secretary. “Well, actually he said ‘boobs on the moon,’ but we believe that to be a typo.”

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Beyond plucking jokes from headlines and Twitter, Netflix's 10-episode comedy shines when it comes to lampooning those American institutions and individuals that are all-too often shielded from criticism, even when warranted: the defense industry, the military top brass, and the whole circus of contractors, officials, and arms manufacturers that come with them.

This is best captured during a sequence teased in the first trailer for the series. When Naird learns that a congressional delegation is en route to Space Force headquarters to witness the launch of their newest satellite, which is over budget and months late, he rushes to find something else they can demonstrate in its stead. So, he settles on test-firing a new satellite-killing missile as a way to show the suits from D.C. that the billions spent on establishing America's newest military branch haven't been squandered. 

Unfortunately, the munition immediately blows up on the launchpad, and Naird turns to another Space Force officer to ask about the cost.

"Four" is the answer.

"Four million?" Naird asks.

"Middle schools. Cost as much as four middle schools."

"FUUUUUUUCK" is Naird's response.

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While fiscal irresponsibility probably isn't what comes to mind when someone starts talking about a workplace comedy, it absolutely works for Space Force. As an institution, the military is entrusted with hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars each year, and while not every cent goes misspent, there have been some notable examples.

A few include: the USS Zumwalt, an advanced $7.8 billion destroyer that faced cost overruns and delays for years; the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, officially the most expensive weapons program in U.S. military history, which remains marred by technical problems; and the Pentagon's decades-long efforts to create a real-life 'Iron Man' suit which went absolutely nowhere.

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Back to the boondoggle at hand: after the failed launch, Naird meets with his head scientist, Dr. Adrian Mallory (played by John Malkovich), who serves as a foil to Carell's character. Throughout the show, Mallory is cast as a nerdy Spock in tweed opposite Naird as Kirk with his shiny stack of medals. In the scene, Mallory explains that the satellite launch can't go forward at this time: "It's a six billion dollar decision, we can't risk it."

"It's a lot for a scientist, but in the military we have to risk lives," Naird responds,  prompting Mallory to painstakingly point out just what it would cost should the mission fail, in terms of dollars and irreparable damage to the trust the public places in their agency, and the government as a whole.

"At 50 grand a year, it would take 120,000 years to earn six billion dollars," Mallory says. "That is the entire lifetime earnings of 3,000 people. Now, how many times can a country waste the entire life-time earnings of thousands of its citizens without something really bad happening?"

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Eventually, Naird is called to answer for the service's cost overruns during a hearing in Capitol Hill, where he's grilled by a stand-in for Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), about the service's spending habits, which includes paying $10,000 for an orange. And while an appropriations hearing may not sound like fodder for comedy, the scene works because, well, that shit has actually happened, like when Navy officials were blasted for sticking taxpayers with a $400 bill for a hammer.

Aside from the jabs about federal waste, the series offers a number of subtle hat-tips to the military and veterans community. There's Naird's impeccable ribbon rack, his almost supernatural ability to work a war story into every other conversation, and how the Joint Chiefs of Staff, played by Noah Emmerich, Jane Lynch, Diedrich Bader, and Patrick Warburton, collectively tear into the commandant of the Coast Guard later in the season for trying to sit with them during a briefing.

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While Netflix's Space Force may not be for everyone, it's perfect for those who have wondered just what the head shed was doing with all that money, and why every newfangled fighter jet, warship, or weapon system seems to fall apart before it ever sees action even though your issued gear is old enough to retire.

Space Force blasts off on Netflix on May 29.