What Space Force is and is not will be revealed to you when you watch it (it’s available to stream now on Netflix). As Greg Daniels told us when we spoke a couple of weeks ago, he’s eager for people to stop thinking that the show is “The Office in outer space,” hoping trailers and initial reads would be powerful enough for people to divorce themselves from the idea that Michael Scott somehow graduated from manager of a midsize paper company to the rank of four-star general. What Daniels is comfortable with, it seems, is the idea that his shows take some time for people to get comfortable with them. And then, as you may have noticed with your streaming habits, we seem to never let go of them, watching and rewatching new-classics like The Office and Parks And Rec that Daniels created, particularly at a time when TV comfort food is in high demand.
Whether Space Force will have the same hold remains to be seen. What it has going for it is an All-Star cast that evokes the memory of long-ago icon-rich comedies like It’s A Mad Mad World from Daniels when he lavishes praise on players like Roy Wood Jr, Ben Schwartz, Don Lake, Steve Carell, and others. It also has a deliberate focus on people — with all our insecurities, charm, and internal struggles between instinct, habit, and duty — striving to accomplish something that might not be as important as the journey. We spoke with Daniels about the show’s identity, the power of deploying John Malkovich in a comedy, and making comedy for the long haul.
I can see a version of Space Force that would have been very different — more pointed, more political. This is not that. You really focus on the people, not necessarily the “Space Force” joke.
Obviously, the show is set in the new branch of the military, but we didn’t want it to be a super timely, disposable thing. We wanted it to be a character comedy, and it’s about stuff. I think it has themes, but we’re sort of presenting a long-range look, I would say. We’re talking about nationalism and some of the greatest moments of our history, and people with integrity trying to achieve audacious things. So I think the show is saying stuff, but it’s not like it’s meant for late-night, one-time viewing.
Yeah. I think, like you’re saying, themes about nationalism, science and anti-science, and things along those lines definitely feel of this moment, but they’re also going to outlast this moment. These things are going to be topics for a long time. I’m assuming that’s part of the reason why Trump isn’t named and why he’s not a major factor.
Well, I think that there’s a way to do satire where it’s a little more subtle. Where it’s about taking a look at the whole situation and picking the good parts of different arguments and making an alternative vision of how people ought to act, maybe. In terms of just referencing him, I think that there’s a good bit of comedy fatigue in going after that name, so I think he’s just an example of a certain kind of nationalistic politician that we have now in Brazil, Hungary, and Poland. He’s not the only person, so when you take one step back, you realize, “Oh, okay. Well, we’re sort of talking about the military people who actually know what’s going on and then the people who are all about politics.” I guess it’s the goal to still be able to make that point in a different administration or without not making that point.
The casting of John Malkovich as Mallory is just fantastic, and I think he and Carell really play well off each other. Can you tell me a little bit about the importance of their dynamic and the punch–counterpunch relationship that they have?
We had a show before we had a script and we had talked about a lot of ideas for Steve’s character, a lot of comedy and storylines and stuff like that, and the show was announced and Malkovich’s agent called me and said, “Hey, he really is tickled by the concept of this. If you can think of a way to use him, he’s open to it.” So that actually inspired us to picture that and be like, “Well, what would it be like with John Malkovich in the show?” So we kind of wrote Mallory in the hopes of getting Malkovich, but it became more of a leader-and-his-buddy, man-of-science kind of relationship. Do you know the Master and Commander book series?
No, I don’t.
I guess they made a movie out of it with the guy who was in Gladiator, Russell Crowe.
That I’ve heard of.
There’s a ship’s captain and then there’s the science officer on the ship, and it’s set in the 1800s or something. I think it’s a good way to have characters that are representing different ideas but equally strong so you can have a debate on their points of view that are pretty evenly matched. Malkovich is so funny, and I feel he’s always in dramas where he’s a sparkling, interesting person with a sense of humor but he doesn’t necessarily get used in a straight-ahead, only-for-comedy way much, and it’s been really fun to give him that opportunity.
Yeah, and he just runs with it. It’s really spectacular.
Speaking of the cast, Don Lake feels like a secret weapon. Obviously, you’ve done a lot of things where you have a rich ensemble and there’s always someone that kind of stands out, and I feel like he steals a lot of scenes.
Yeah, he really does. I love Don Lake so much, and I wasn’t that familiar with him before we started casting. He’s done a lot of stuff with Christopher Guest and he’s obviously super trained as a comedian and stuff, but when he came in to do all the Brad stuff, I really felt like he was a comedy character from the 1960s. He sort of walked in like Don Knotts, and it was such a cool energy that I hadn’t seen on TV lately. Shows like The Office, Parks and Rec, and King Of The Hill — a lot of people are finding those shows now, re-finding those shows now as opposed to other types of shows that are maybe a little more sharp or drama heavy.
Why do you think it is that right now in this moment that people are really rediscovering a lot of your work?
Well, I am not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. I’m happy that everybody’s gone that way. I think what it is, is that I always pitched these shows as being part of a tradition of character comedy. Going back to Mary Tyler Moore or Cheers, or something. All those shows which I really respected growing up. The comedy is aimed at the long term and sometimes those shows have trouble getting started because since the jokes are coming from people’s personalities, you’ve got to learn the personalities first to appreciate the jokes.
And so shows like Mary Tyler Moore and Cheers had very rocky beginning as did The Office, as did Parks. And I always was telling the network executives, “This is for the longterm because people’s personalities and people’s characters are not something that you’re not going to be caring about ten years from now because it’s just human beings and how they interact.” So it was hard to get them launched because they were built for the longterm. But now I guess it’s paying off because it’s the long term and people are still enjoying them.
‘Space Force’ begins streaming on Netflix on May 29.