Space Force, The Good Place, and the Art of Making the Political Apolitical

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If you sometimes want to stay away from the news because it's overwhelming, you have a lot in common with the creators of TV shows.

Because dramatizations of the news aren't appealing to audiences who generally see TV as an escape, TV producers and writers often try to walk a fine line between relevance and direct commentary.

One of the main reasons to ensure political distance is that a show often needs to be timeless and play well in syndication or at a future date.

Space Force 3 Cover

Another reason is that the show's creators don't necessarily want the show's message from being co-opted by whatever political debates are happening at the moment.

As the culture wars have gotten more polarizing, alienating large fan bases isn't beneficial for TV, which has to reach a wider audience.

But that doesn't mean the creators of TV shows aren't influenced by what's happening in their environment and don't have things they want to say with their work.

Recent TV shows Space Force and The Great (a show about a self-serving Russian autocrat with definite parallels to our era) have parallels to our current political situation. Still, they are successful because they comment from a safe distance.

Sunnyside NBC

When addressing a class at Notre Dame University, The Good Place creator Michael Schur mentioned that he was grateful that the show's pilot was written in early 2016 well before the election so that profound discussions of right and wrong weren't taken as commentary on the current administration. 

"I thought what it meant to be a good person through the lens of ethical behavior was just a piece of art floating through the universe. And then' over the next three and a half years, the word "ethics" has appeared on the front page of the newspaper more days than not, and that was completely coincidental," Schur said.

"So I think that's good, but lucky for us so they don't know anything that's going on on Earth so they can't comment on it. And we wanted to avoid the political climate anyway because the current political climate has little to do with the history of philosophy."

Similarly, when Good Place writer Matt Murray created Sunnyside (which Schur produced) in the Fall of 2019, he wanted to avoid current events in his show about a group of immigrants trying to get their citizenship. 

Diane upset - The Good Fight Season 4 Episode 7

"There are a lot of [current] shows that frankly don't make you feel good. I'm a huge fan of The Daily Show, but every time you turn off the TV after watching it, you feel bad about the world. I wanted to do the opposite and tell stories that make you feel good," Murray told TV Line.  

That doesn't mean that some shows feel steering clear of politics is an awful idea.

The Good Wife's spinoff The Good Fight has mined the present-day political climate to make its show into a power anthem of sorts, and mining the news of the day in serialized form has long been the brand of Law and Order

Additionally, shows like Atlanta, Dear White People, Black-ish, or The Chi try to take on the black experience at a more-than-superficial level, and that often involves reflecting on a particular political climate. 

But a show like Space Force is mostly intended as a vehicle for comedy.

The tricky thing about the conception of the show is that it sprang directly from a news event. When President Trump announced the creation of a Space Force, The Office's Greg Daniels felt it would be a great opportunity for the collaboration with Steve Carell he wanted to kick start.

It gets trickier with Space Force, though, because the idea for this Netflix show sprang directly from a news event. When President

Trump announced the creation of a Space Force, The Office's Greg Daniels told TV Insider that he felt it would be a great opportunity for another collaboration with Steve Carell.

Steve Carrell on Space Force

Carell's Space Force character, Mark Naird, is an aloof soldier caricature of questionable confidence and a rigid sense of patriotism.

The character has been compared to Trump himself by many critics, but it's more accurate to say he seems like the ideal Trump administration bureaucrat.

It might not be far-fetched to think that Daniels and Carell were watching the types of people being selected to serve in the administration and concluding that it would be a good place to launch Michael Scott 2.0.

In other words, this might be better seen as simply an excuse to stick to what these guys do best, which is cringe-worthy as a brand of humor.

Space Force 2

At the same time, the show doesn't shy away from issues because it doesn't exist in a vacuum. If one wants to mine the commentary on Space Force, they can find satire about bureaucracy, military insularity, and xenophobia.

There are still elements of satire -- a distaste of science and an overemphasis on public image, for example -- that are specific to the current situation. However, they are still played with enough vagueness so as not to be pigeonholed to the present.

Space Force also offers some hope from the pessimism in the news that it parallels. 

While Mark Naird is a doppelganger of a Trump loyalist, there's a key difference between him and the loyalists we've seen on the news in that Naird is a dynamic character who seems willing to change.

Space Force 1

In particular, Naird begins with anti-science attitudes abates as he forms a genuine partnership with Doctor Adrian Mallory (John Malkovich).

Shows often rest on a strong central dynamic, and the Mallory-Naird friendship is rightfully at the center of the show.

It's also worth noting that Daniels and Carell have stated in interviews they both have relatives in the military that they have the utmost respect for, and they wanted to honor them while creating comedy.

In other words, Space Force is an affectionate parody. It has the room to comment on current events but with warmth towards its characters and hope for their ability to learn and improve. 

Have you watched any of these shows? What are your thoughts on what we've covered? Hit the comments!

Orrin Konheim was a staff writer for TV Fanatic. He retired in October 2020. Follow him on Twitter and his personal blog at Sophomore Critic.

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