Imitation is the sincerest form of television. Every now and then, though, the imitation gets especially weird. There was the year both ABC and the WB premiered shows (That Was Then and Do Over) about middle-aged men who were sent back in time to relive their adolescence. Or the year when NBC and the CW both had new shows (Chuck and Reaper) about nerds working in big-box stores who got unlikely superpowers. Or that time when NBC and CBS scheduled new, Chicago-based hospital dramas (ER and Chicago Hope) in the same time slot. Each time, I would ask the creators and network executives how these similar shows were developed and green-lit independently of one another, and the answer would inevitably be some variation on, “I don’t know. There was just something in the air this year.”
Still, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything like the last 12 months or so, when we’ve gotten six different shows about space travel: Apple TV+’s alternate-history drama For All Mankind, HBO’s futuristic farce Avenue 5, Netflix’s workplace sitcom Space Force, Netflix’s earnest (and short-lived) mission to Mars drama Away, Disney+’s dull remake of The Right Stuff, and now Showtime’s quirky comedy Moonbase 8, starring John C. Reilly, Fred Armisen, and Tim Heidecker as NASA afterthoughts simulating lunar life in the Arizona desert.
How, exactly, did we arrive at Peak Astronaut TV? Especially since all of these series were developed and produced well before this perilous moment in history, when simply leaving the house can feel as risky as sitting atop a rocket bound for orbit. There’s something scary in the air right now, but how did the people behind this work sense it a year or two ago?
More importantly, why are most of these shows so disappointing?
Moonbase 8 at least feels timely, if not especially funny, since its subject matter is about the psychological challenge of prolonged isolation from all but a handful of people. When the season begins, Cap (Reilly), Skip (Armisen), and Rook (Heidecker) have been on assignment for more than 200 days. They are bored, frustrated, and only vaguely competent. (And most of that skill is via NASA legacy Skip, where Cap and Rook come across like each won the job via a scratch-off lottery.)
The tone is as dry as the crew’s surroundings, in the same vein as the FX cult classic Baskets, whose mastermind, Jonathan Kriesel, co-created this series with its three stars. Baskets elicited both laughs and genuine emotion by treating a bunch of ridiculous ideas — Zach Galifianakis played both a failed clown and his identical twin brother, while Louie Anderson got into drag as their mom — with utter seriousness. Moonbase 8, on the other hand, doesn’t seem particularly invested in the absurdity of three underqualified, middle-aged men cosplaying as lunar explorers, nor in the poignancy of the gaping distance between their dreams of space travel and the reality of their situation on the ground.
Almost all of it just lies flat, and the choice to give the theoretically meatier dramatic material to Armisen rather than Reilly feels particularly odd. All three guys come across as cartoons, but Skip especially, because pathos has never been part of Armisen’s indelible skill set. (Then again, who knew Louie Anderson had an Emmy-winning, predominantly dramatic, cross-dressing performance in him? Can’t blame Kriesel for trying again, I guess.)
At various points of the six-episode season, other astronauts are temporarily assigned to train alongside the main crew. (One of them, played by a non-actor, improbably gets more laughs than the show’s stars.) Some are instantly dismissive of these clowns, while others are friendly but also puzzled by what the guys’ whole deal is. Wherever you fall on that spectrum, odds are you’ll be eager for NASA to reassign you to another TV billet. Well, maybe not Space Force.
Moonbase 8 premieres November 8th on Showtime. I’ve seen all six episodes.