Saturday, September 30, 2023

Pure Lunacy


“Moonbase 8” on Showtime

Space, for some reason or another, is on a lot of people’s minds right now. President Donald Trump made it the cornerstone of his second term in office, promising in an Oct. 23 tweet to make “Establish Permanent Manned Presence on The Moon” his top priority—a vow that clearly didn’t resonate all that loudly with voters. Meanwhile, TV is awash with space sagas both hopeful and nostalgic: Disney+’s “The Right Stuff,” Netflix’s “Space Force” and “Away,” Apple TV+’s “For All Mankind” and even HBO’s “Avenue 5” all deal with astronauts and space travel. Perhaps we’re just thinking back to an earlier era, when the space race fueled American innovation and united us in national pride. Now Showtime jumps aboard that rocket with “Moonbase 8,” a comedy interested in neither innovation nor pride.

The series is the work of creator Jonathan Krisel, who gave us FX’s inspiringly off-kilter “Baskets.” Krisel serves as director and co-writer—alongside stars John C. Reilly, Tim Heidecker and Fred Armisen. It’s an impressive team-up. Reilly starred in A-list Hollywood films like Boogie Nights, Chicago and Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby before transitioning to Adult Swim weirdness like “Tom Goes to the Mayor,” “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” and “Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule.” Heidecker more or less established that “Adult Swim weirdness” with his partner Eric Warheim in such “anti-comedy” classics as “Tom Goes to the Mayor,” “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” and “Tim & Eric’s Bedtime Stories.” Armisen’s comedy path has been slightly more mainstream, having been a cast member on  “Saturday Night Live” and co-creating and co-starring in the sketch comedy classic “Portlandia.” It’s an impressive assemblage of talent that probably should have yielded something far funnier than what ends up on screen.

The “situation” in this sitcom is a simple one. NASA is trying to establish a base on the moon. To prep for it, they’re built a number of training simulation facilities across the U.S. and are putting a host of would-be astronauts through their paces. One particular simulation is the titular “Moonbase 8,” located in the desert outside Winslow, Arizona. On site are Cap (Reilly), Rook (Heidecker) and Skip (Armisen). Needless to say, these three are among the least qualified of applicants. Cap is a bankrupt helicopter pilot hoping a trip to the moon will alleviate his alimony back payments. Rook is a Phish groupie turned born again Christian. Skip is a nervous botanist living in the shadow of his famous father. Together, these three stooges stumble their way through various botched NASA assignments. Unfortunately, the humor is as arid as the desert around them. Viewers will catch the occasional well-timed ad lib from one of the performers, but “Moonbase 8” spends most of its time establishing its stars as incompetent idiots in a situation (fake outer space) in which there are very few consequences to their stumbling actions. No matter how badly they screw up (and it’s usually pretty bad), the experiment continues. You could argue that the show is a timely look at the madness of prolonged isolation. But it’s probably a stretch to assign too much sociological import to the sort of slapstick absurdity on display here. As pure, mindless, goofball humor goes, “Moonbase 8” is low-level functional. But given the talent in front of and behind the camera, this failure to launch is more Apollo 1 than Apollo 13. [ ]


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