In many ways, Showtime’s “Moonbase 8” is exactly what you’d expect it to be given its cast. John C. Reilly once again plays an immature doofus, but he does so with enough affable charm that he comes off as likable instead of grating. Tim Heidecker goes for an earnest approach to his character too, bringing his deadpan brand of comedy to the show. As the final member of this strange trio, Fred Armisen’s quirky sense of humor comes on the mission fully intact. None of these three are rewriting their comedy handbooks as much as bringing their A-game to some sharp writing and allowing their different styles to bounce off each other. It makes for a tight, quirky comedy that has more laughs in its blessedly brief three-hour total running time for this six-episode season than most comedy films released this year.
The second space-themed comedy of the year after Netflix’s disappointing “Space Force,” this Showtime offering comes with a much-sharper focus. Almost none of the show takes place outside of a habitat in the middle of the Arizona desert that’s being used to train astronauts for life on the lunar surface. Three astronauts are forced to act as if they’re on the moon, including rationing resources, eating dehydrated food, and putting on spacesuits every time they need to go outside. It’s all worth it for Cap (Reilly), who tells his new best friends that he needs to go to the moon to turn around a bad chapter of his life that includes a broken marriage and failed business (“I go to the moon and I’m not a deadbeat dad.”) Cap is the loudest and dumbest of the three, but it’s his heart that drives the action of the show. Heidecker’s Rook is a religious man with a massive family at home who he’s trying to impress, along with bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ to the moon. Finally, Armisen’s Skip is the legacy astronaut, trying to follow in the footsteps of his famous father, a key NASA figure. Guest stars pop up in the habitat, including a great turn from Kansas City Chiefs Tight End Travis Kelce in the premiere and a series-best episode in which Adam Lambert, Alia Shawkat, and Thomas Mann play trainees at a nearby Elon Musk-funded project that’s going to send them to Mars in style.
“Moonbase 8” is a refreshingly simple show. It’s about three dudes trying to make something of their lives in ways that are similar enough to keep the show’s sense of humor on the same page but also well-defined by each performer. Reilly finds just the right tone for how much Cap needs this project to work. It feels like a last chance for him, making his dumb decisions in the show feel more like relatable desperation than the dumb guy crutch on which other actors would have leaned. Heidecker almost never goes for the actual punchline, and is arguably too reserved at times, but he knows how to own the comedy spotlight when it’s time for Rook to do so. Armisen hysterically digs into the downright ridiculous idea that a son would feel pressure to go to the actual moon just because his father did. As he says, “That’s what a son does.”
Even in just six episodes, “Moonbase 8” starts to get a little repetitive just because of the limitations of its premise and cast, but the creators are smart enough to get out right when the show could start really spinning its wheels. And they keep it fresh with guest stars. The season’s mid-section—an episode in which the guys have to be quarantined & the aforementioned Mars team episode—is one of my favorite overall hours of TV this year. It’s a reminder that a comedy’s greatest strength can sometimes be largely casting—just getting funny, talented people in a room and letting them riff off each other. There’s so much joy and humor to be found in Reilly, Heidecker, and Armisen doing what they do so well, finding the comedy in idiotic behavior without feeling like they’re resorting to easy “dumb guy” jokes. Cap, Rook, and Skip aren’t dumb guys. They may not be the elite of NASA, but their whole hearts are in it, and this ensemble excels by embracing the honest drive of these guys, even if it’s sometimes going in the wrong direction.
Whole season screened for review.