Let’s face it: Most astronaut comedies aren’t actually successful. Look at Netflix’s Space Force, which bombed, even with Steve Carell. And the animated Star Trek: Lower Decks, though really funny, mostly flew under the radar.
There’s a reason most stories about astronauts are plodding dramas, like Hilary Swank’s Away or Brad Pitt’s Ad Astra. With the exception of the cult UK show Red Dwarf, which debuted more than 30 years ago, most comedies set in space have been sucked into a black hole.
But could that finally change? Moonbase 8 might break from the cliché that portrays space shows as dull, drab, and tiresome, proving to never be funny (except for the aforementioned Red Dwarf and ALF, the 1980s classic of an alien living with a suburban American family). Moonbase 8 is 2020's answer to those shows.
Debuting on Showtime on November 8, the series follows the lives of three astronauts — played by a trio of reliable white male comedians (Fred Armisen, John C. Reilly, and Tim Heidecker; be sure to read our interview with him). Moonbase 8 takes place on a NASA base in the Southwest desert, where these would-be astronauts attempt to pass a series of tests to qualify for their first lunar mission. What could possibly go wrong?
Led by their captain, Cap (Reilly), and his fellow astronauts, Skip (Armisen) and Rook (Heidecker), it sometimes feels like watching the Three Stooges reincarnated as astronauts. Moonbase 8 packs three of the great comedic talents of our time into a geodesic tent and gives it the spirit of Monty Python.
Armisen brings his hunched-over hey man indie rock flair and pairs it with a pinch of persnickety neat freak. Meanwhile, Heidecker plays a reformed Phish fan-turned-born-again Christian. As his fans would hope, he's full of strange stares, rambling prayers, and the odd furrowed brow when contemplating "science vs. religion."
With considerable physical presence, Reilly offers blustering surprises that seem to come out from left field, filling the screen with screams and hollers. From getting a desert scorpion stuck in his space helmet, crying to a garbage-collecting spiritual guru, or leaning on Canadian tourists like his therapist, Reilly's bombastic style simply cannot be ignored as deliciously unhinged. He's my standout in a trio of greats.
It’s the sheer randomness that makes Moonbase 8 worthwhile. From the absurdist tidbits with canned bagels to their dinnertime talk and isolation-induced craziness, there’s a familiar-feeling banter between the characters, played by actors who have taken slightly different paths in their careers but who have each been in the spotlight for most of the millennium. (Heidecker is the youngest at 44, Armisen at 53, and Reilly at 55.)
Their characters constantly fail in an admiring way where they’re not always in on the joke. Sometimes it's too obvious; other times, it hits the mark.
Yet, one has to wonder — why are they so incompetent? Natural disasters, a contagious virus, a distracting girl crush, disputes with ranchers, running out of water; everything that can go wrong does. Idiot astronauts. Could they be that stupid?
Sci-fi fans will delight in odd space details, like Heidecker mistaking a Yoda going through their garbage, Armisen self-isolating in the greenhouse and hallucinating after catching a virus, and a visit from a legit astronaut (spoiler: a woman). It's all drenched in the kind of hipster flair you wouldn’t really expect for a workplace comedy but feels natural for a show produced by indie film studio A24.
It's directed by Portlandia director Jonathan Krisel (who also directed episodes of Tim and Eric), and with the core cast all being musicians as well as comedians, that subcultural pull quickly seeps into the plot. Armisen attempts to lead a module on Indian music as a way of dealing with trauma, and free jazz is used to repel intruders. The soundtrack by Steven Drozd of the Flaming Lips sounds like Frank Zappa meets a psychedelic Pee-wee Herman.
If the producers had left the comedians to just improvise, Moonbase 8 would have been a gonzo masterpiece. Instead, the script feels a bit stiff at times. It’s all smoothed over with an episode featuring Adam Lambert, the singer from rock band Queen (donning a retro goatee), who brings a burst of star power to save it from any stretch of boredom. Lambert fans will relish his turn as a cocky Tesla employee who isn’t impressed by anything at the NASA facility. (Of course, Tesla is way cooler.)
So why are there so few comedies about space teams and NASA? Because it’s so hard to pull off. It's either too jargony or too campy, or both. This one seems to balance the weirdest of both worlds.
Could Moonbase 8 be what Space Force aimed for? Rather than fumbling with all the bureaucratic crap that surrounds space exploration, the Showtime series is galaxies away from politics. Instead, it zooms in on three idiot savants relishing in simplicity, slapstick, and space food.
Simply put, Moonbase 8 has its hilarious moments, but there’s plenty of room to improve should it get renewed for Season 2. The characters have lucid interactions, there are unexpected moments of quirky strangeness, and there’s a steady dose of awkwardness mixed with absurdist humor that makes it more meme-worthy than your average canned-laughter sitcom. One can only hope for takeoff.
Moonbase 8 premieres November 8 on Showtime.