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Josh Reviews For All Mankind Season One!

I signed up for Apple TV, just so I could watch this new show from Ronald D. Moore.  And I have no regrets!  Mr. Mooore was one of the best writers on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and he was the creator and show-runner of the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, a show I absolutely adore.  For All Mankind, created by Ronald D. Moore, Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi, tells an alternate history of what might have transpired had the Russians won the space race and beat the U.S. to landing a man on the moon in 1969.  That sounds like it could be a dark version of history, but the show is remarkably positive and aspirational, taking the approach that the continued competition between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. led to the U.S.’s not abandoning the Apollo program after Apollo 17 in 1972.  This was one of my very favorite TV shows of 2019!

The show depicts this alternate history in a fascinatingly considered, documentary-like approach.  The series isn’t a fake-doc, but it has the gravitas of a period piece chronicle of an important time in history; it just so happens that this history is fake!  It feels like an alt-history version of From the Earth to the Moon.  I thought it was fantastic, a wonderful piece of speculative fiction that was fascinating and thrilling.

I was delighted by the many little details and moments that show us how the show’s alternate history diverged from our reality.  It’s fascinating to hear, on the radio, that Ted Kennedy cancelled his party at Chappaquiddick in order to attend NASA hearings following the Soviet’s moon landings… and then, later in the show, we learn that, untarnished by that tragedy, he’s elected President!  (It’s also fascinating to hear reports, later in the season, that President Ted Kennedy winds up embroiled in a sex scandal involving Mary Jo Kopechne — who, in reality, died at Chappaquiddick in 1969.)

As I noted above, I was very surprised and taken by the idea that, far from this show’s being some sort of dystopia, we see that many remarkably positive events spiral out of the U.S.’s loss of the space race to the Russians.  We see that NASA succeeded in creating a lunar habitat; that public pressure led to the inclusion of female astronauts far earlier than actually happened, and how that change then led to the passage of the E.R.A. in the seventies (while the E.R.A. was never, in reality, ratified).  These are just a few of many examples!  I love how, on the show, the discovery of ice on the moon in 1971 (far earlier than happened in real life, when this wasn’t discovered until 2010) turns the moon into a refueling station on the way to the rest of the solar  system.  (In reality, of course, man has never traveled past the moon.)  It’s so cool that we see, on the show, the establishment of a manned lunar base in 1973.  (In our reality, this remains a dream of science-fiction writers and fans.)  In the premiere, it’s melancholy to hear Gene Kranz (Eric Laden) worry that the U.S. might turn away from space and the future, bogged down in war and other problems.  That is unfortunately what happened in our real world, even though the U.S. won the space race!

The show features many actors who are playing real characters, carefully mixed with other actors playing made-up, created for the show new characters.  This is an intriguing, mind-bending mix, but the show handles it very well.  And so, for example, we have Chris Bauer as Deke Slayton (the director of Flight Crew Operations for NASA during the Apollo missions, and a character who has appeared in many films and TV shows recreating this era of manned spaceflight, including From the Earth to the Moon and Apollo 13), a real-life person whose life unfolds quite differently in the show’s alternate history.  Deke is just as much a character on the show as the fictional astronauts Ed Baldwin and Gordo Stevens (played by Joel Kinnaman and Michael Dorman), as well as all the fictional women in NASA’s first class of female astronauts, including Sarah Jones as Tracy Stevens and Sonya Walger as Molly Cobb (though, and stay with me here, the show’s fictional Molly Cobb is based to some degree on the real-life Geraldyn M. Cobb).  It’s fascinating trying to sort out the real history and characters on the show from what’s fake — particularly for someone like me who is fascinated by the real story of the Apollo missions — but it all works!

I loved the show’s focus on an array of strong, interesting female characters.  The histories of the Apollo programs tend to focus on the men; it’s great that this show uses its alt-history concept as a way to incorporate so many complex female characters.  I really enjoyed the divergent journeys of Tracy and Karen, two women who start the show as stay-at-home wives married to astronauts.  Tracy (Sarah Jones) takes advantage of NASA’s initiative to create a class of female astronauts; she upends her life and winds up doing something she’d never thought she could do.  Karen (Shantel VanSanten), meanwhile, remains a stay-at-home-mom, and this gradually embitters her.  (It’s interesting to explore Karen’s perspective, as she expresses in episode three, that female astronauts make a mockery of what her husband Ed and his colleagues do.)  Both Ms. Jones & Ms. VanSanten gave terrific performances throughout the season, and I loved following the twists and turns their characters’ stories took.  In previous movies and TV shows about this era of NASA, I’ve often found the depiction of the astronauts’ wives to be somewhat superficial.  I’m glad that this show made all of these women so interesting — even the ones who didn’t wind up becoming astronauts themselves!

Getting back to that group of female astronauts on the show: Sonya Walger (Lost) was fantastic as Molly, a cynical veteran who has been hardened to believe, from all her past experience, that NASA will never actually let a woman astronaut go up into space.  Krys Marshall was great as Danielle Poole, NASA’s first African-American astronaut.  I love the sacrifice that we see Danielle make for her fellow astronaut Gordo late in the season.  Jodi Balfour was compelling as Ellen, forced to hide the secret of her lesbianism for fear of being thrown out of the astronaut program.  (I was glad that the treatment of gays and lesbians in the sixities and seventies was a major storyline throughout the season.  The storyline in the second half of the season, in which an FBI investigation leads to a witch-hunt for gays and lesbians, was very sad to watch unfold.  Nate Corddry did strong work as Larry, the gay NASA worker who winds up marrying Ellen so they both can keep their sexual identities a secret.  Also great was Meghan Leathers as Pam, the young lesbian barmaid at the astronauts’ favorite watering hole.)  I also really enjoyed the exploration of the character of Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt), who becomes the first woman to be allowed to work in Mission Control, and who eventually becomes Flight Director herself.  (Margo is a fictional character who, like Molly Cobb, was also inspired by a real-life woman: Margaret Hamilton, a MIT programmer for NASA’s Apollo Guidance Computer.)

The two main male leads, Joel Kinnaman and Michael Dorman, are also strong, though I didn’t find their characters anywhere near as interesting as any of the female ones.  Mr. Kinnaman plays Edward Baldwin.  Ed is the type of driven, strapping figure of a male astronaut that we’re used to seeing.  I’m not sure about Mr. Kinnaman’s abilities as a leading man — he sure was stiff and miscast in Suicide Squad.  He’s much better here, but I didn’t find myself quite as engaged with this character as I’d expected.  However, things picked up towards the end of the season, when Ed found himself in a difficult situation during an extended lunar mission.  Michael Dorman plays Ed’s fellow astronaut Gordo Stevens (Tracy’s husband).  Like Ed, Gordo is not all that likable in the first half of the season.  (I presume this was by design.)  Also like Ed, his story got more interesting in the back half of the season.  I really enjoyed episode seven, “Hi Bob”, in which we see Gordo start to crack.  (That episode, revolving around an episode of The Bob Newhart Show, was a highlight of the season for me.)

Other thoughts on season one:

* I was at first surprised by Chris Bauer (who was so great and slimy as Bobby Dwyer on The Deuce) and his take on Deke Slayton.  (This was a gruffer, more ornery Deke than I was used to seeing.)  But I was ultimately quite taken by Mr. Bauer’s portrayal, and I love that, as the season progressed, Deke got to go on the type of outer space adventure that I suspect the real Deke had dreamed about.

* I was intrigued that Wernher von Braun, another real-life figure, was also such a major player on the show.  The real von Braun was a German scientist who, after the war, became a key figure in NASA’s spaceflight programs.  On the show, he was played with great gentleness by Colm Feore.  I loved von Braun’s speech before Congress in episode two.  “We cannot allow fear to drive us from our purpose.  What we are seeking is the key to our future.  We are expanding the mind of man.”  I love this optimistic, very Star Trek sentiment!

* I liked that the show didn’t add on sound-effects to the outer-space sequences.  Since there’s no sound in the vacuum of space, this is a more realistic depiction than one often sees in a fictional sci-fi show.

* I liked seeing David Andrews, the actor who played Frank Borman in From the Earth to the Moon, appear as Ed Baldwin’s old Navy C.O. — that was a nice little connection!

* I liked seeing Saul Rubinek (Frasier, Kivas Fajo on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and seen recently in season two of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) as Representative Sandman (who gives von Braun a very public hard time early in the season).

* I love hearing Ed quote Commander Adama (from the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, a show created and run by Ronald D. Moore, who co-created this show as well) in episode six, saying “Sometimes you have to roll the hard six.”  That was fantastic!

* I enjoyed the development of the friendship between Karen and Molly Cobb’s pot-smoking, painter husband Wayne, played by Lenny Jacobson (Celeste & Jesse Forever, Halt and Catch Fire).

* It’s not a main part of the series, but I was glad we got a few scenes late in the season that touched upon the post-war PSD of Danielle’s husband Clay.

* The business with the accident that befalls Tracy & Gordo’s son Shane late in the season was a little too soap opera-ish for me.  (So too was the timing of Deke’s final fate — right in the middle of their moment of triumph! — in the season finale.)  There were some other moments that struck me as implausible, particularly the idea that Ed could be left alone for so long on the lunar base.  But these are relatively minor quibbles in a very strong season.

* I really enjoyed Ellen’s great final speech, in the season finale, a wonderful call-back to John F. Kennedy’s famous declaration that “we choose to go to the moon… not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”

For All Mankind was a terrific show!  It really spoke to all of my interests.  I am delighted that the show has already been renewed for a second season.  I can’t wait!

(Meanwhile, you can watch For All Mankind on Apple TV+ here.)

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