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Moonbase 8 review: a dim, charming space comedy about nothing

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The final frontier is a familiar frontier for television. From Steve Carell’s sitcom Space Force to Hilary Swank in Away, Hugh Laurie in HBO’s Avenue 5, and the familiar Star Trek: Picard, narratives covering the journey to space are proliferating lately. And that’s no surprise: Space is more than an exotic locale. Space travel throws characters into confined, high-stress surroundings, from military bases to tin cans circling the planet, which makes for compelling character dynamics.

Jonathan Krisel’s Showtime comedy series Moonbase 8 trades in those same compelling dynamics, as astronauts Skip (Fred Armisen), Rook (Tim Heidecker), and Cap (John C. Reilly), train in Winslow, Arizona, ahead of their mission to occupy the first manned moon base. But Krisel finds less success than those other space shows. Over the course of the first season’s six half-hour episodes, the mundane hurdles they experience makes the Portlandia co-creator’s latest series into a slight but endearing workplace comedy.

The odd trio of Skip, Rook, and Cap are the unlikeliest astronauts in NASA’s history. The dorky Skip is training for space as a tribute to his genius father. Devout Christian Rook is venturing to the moon as a spiritual mission, to spread the word of God. And Cap, the senior member of the base, is fleeing to the moon to avoid his financial ruin in Hawaii. These men, for the most part, are hardly the best and the brightest.

Photo: Johnny Buzzerio / Showtime

Unlike Portlandia, which lampooned the city of Portland and the most ridiculous aspects of progressive politics, Moonbase 8 is a show about nothing. Its success rests on finding the laughs in bonkers scenarios that would easily find a home on Saturday Night Live. For instance, the show’s premiere guest stars Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce — who’s assigned to the base as a cross-promotion between NASA and the NFL. While the episode sees the trio’s water tank, which is meant to last them a month, run dry within a week, it’s ostensibly about Kelce treating Cap as his personal lapdog.

Kelce is more than convincing as the intimidating alpha male forcing the beleaguered Cap into washing his moon rover, or giving over his water rations. He’s a convincing, compelling presence, and the show could use more of him. But alas, this is a collection of episodes with fairly self-contained arcs doubling as compact sketches.

That’s only a problem because the episodes’ limited scope halts the show’s momentum, particularly in the character development. Take Cap: He’s a loser. He has zero training, and even less purpose. He’s failed at every business venture he’s ever pursued, such as his bankrupt helicopter-tour company. It’s rare for astronauts to be portrayed as anything but impenetrable heroes, and while Moonbase 8 subverts that dynamic, it misses an opportunity when Krisel doesn’t spend enough time exploring Cap’s personal problems. The same can be said of the trio’s unlikely dynamic: the scientist, the everyman, and the devout. The setup leaves spaces available to explore all the possible fissures between them, especially Rook’s religiosity, but the resulting humor isn’t particularly cutting.

Tim Heidecker and John C. Reilly sit with NFL player Travis Kelce (as himself) in Moonbase 8

Photo: Merie Wallace / Showtime

While their base is relatively isolated — the protagonists’ quarantine in a bubble in the desert feels particularly relevant during our current pandemic — the outside world does intrude. Rook receives consistent video messages from his wife and 12 children, which eventually make him homesick, and a short-term recruit exposes his personal failings. Meanwhile, a scrap-metal collector named Wally becomes fast friends with Cap. The astronauts also receive daily exercises from NASA, asking them to participate in product testing. And in the same episode, the trio work to broker a funding deal with the neighboring SpaceX astronauts. These subplots zip by in brief detail, leaving the show feeling disjointed. Any given episode fizzles out within the first 15 minutes.

Even so, this inept trio are just charming enough to pull off the thin material. Heidecker is as gentle as a lamb, Armisen is hilariously neurotic, and Reilly is an enthusiastic loon. They combine for bouncy entertainment by loosely portraying three outcasts pursuing an unlikely dream. This isn’t your father’s NASA: It’s a mom-and-pop show with outdated technology and garish space suits. These low-rent aspects alone lends Moonbase 8 some points for upending NASA’s hallowed legacy for laughs. While it isn’t nearly as refined as Portlandia, Armisen and Krisel’s Moonbase 8 lands in a sea of tranquility.

All six episodes of Moonbase 8 season 1 are now streaming on Showtime. The first episode is available for free streaming without a subscription on YouTube, SHO.com, Showtime.com, and various On Demand services.

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