Three men who clearly have the right stuff.
Photo: Merie Wallace/SHOWTIME
Most movies and TV shows about space — and there have been a lot of them lately — tend to focus on the specifics of the job: the heroism required, the struggles involved, the scientific acumen and gravitational fortitude needed to soar beyond the bounds of planet Earth. Moonbase 8 is not like other space TV shows and movies.
For starters, it’s not actually set in space. Its six episodes take place at an astronaut-training facility in Winslow, Arizona, where three recruits attempt to prove, in a simulated setting, that they have what it takes to thrive on the moon. Two out of the three moonbase residents seem entirely unqualified to travel anywhere in a NASA uniform, least of all into orbit. Showtime, where Moonbase 8 debuts Sunday night, describes the series as a workplace comedy, which implies it has something in common with Netflix’s Space Force. But Moonbase 8 is more absurdist, low-key, and capable of eliciting actual laughter from its audience.
The show’s three principal wannabe spacemen are Robert “Cap” Caputo (John C. Reilly), Michael “Skip” Henai (Fred Armisen), and Scott “Rook” Sloan (Tim Heidecker), and the challenges they face are hilariously basic. In the first episode, they blow through a month’s supply of water in a single week. In the second, they struggle to get their space suits on in a timely manner. Another half-hour installment centers, partially, around a board game-related dispute. Where other series, like Away or The Right Stuff, portray the work of NASA with reverence, Moonbase 8 strips away all sense of awe and replaces it with complete numbskullery. To emphasize that point, none of our three “heroes” can even remember what NASA stands for. “I don’t think it stands for anything, I think it’s just a word: NASA,” concludes Skip, who should know better since his father worked for NASA — for the record, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration — which is something he mentions constantly.
In addition to nepotism working in his favor, Skip also has some technical and scientific ability that makes it apparent why he was selected to train here. But Cap is the former owner of a defunct helicopter-tour business in Hawaii who has a lien on his condo, and Rook is a Christian father of 12 who isn’t even particularly good at saying prayers. They probably can’t handle being sent to the grocery store to buy a box of moon pies, let alone being sent to the moon.
But of course that’s the joke, and it’s one that Moonbase 8 handles much more effectively than Space Force, which also mined snafus for comedy, but on a much bigger scale. One of the reasons Moonbase 8 works as well as it does is that it’s deliberately not telling stories on a grand scale. Its episodes and its scope are streamlined and focused, and the things its characters confront are purposely not grand at all.
It helps, too, that the team behind it shares the same deadpan comic sensibility. The series was co-created and co-written by Armisen, Heidecker, Reilly, and Jonathan Krisel, who directed all of the episodes. Krisel previously worked with Heidecker on Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! and with Reilly on that Adult Swim show’s spinoff, Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule, and while Moonbase 8 is not as weird as either of those late-night head-trippers, it is still, in the wide scheme of television, an oddball. That is very much a compliment.
For example: On more than one occasion during the season, a fourth trainee joins the base, only to be almost immediately called up to go to the moon even though Skip, Cap, and Rook have been “preparing” for nearly a year. In a delightfully random piece of casting, one of the members of the team for a period of time is Kansas City Chief Travis Kelce, who turns Cap into a dithering fanboy even though he’s the captain of the base. In another running gag, NASA is a constant thorn in the sides of the moonbase crew. Every time the organizations send a video message, it’s deemed an intrusion. (Cap gets really pissed when one such message ruins a game of online solitaire.) Eventually, the guys get annoyed that they haven’t been drafted to go on an actual mission and register their complaint by writing a sternly worded letter to NASA’s higher-ups. “Hey,” Skip writes in the opening of said sternly worded letter. “What are you up to?”
The last episode ends on a cliffhanger that implies that a second season may be coming. At least that’s the hope since six episodes doesn’t seem like enough. But not having enough is basically the theme of Moonbase 8. Or as Cap puts it: “You can’t always get what you want. Just like the Beatles said.”