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Josh Reviews For All Mankind Season Two!

I am a huge fan of Apple TV’s For All Mankind.  This show seems to be flying way under the pop culture radar, but it’s one of the best science fiction dramas I have seen in years.  I highly recommend this series, which just completed its second season!  (Click here for my review of season one.)

For All Mankind depicts an alternate history in which the United States lost the “space race” with the Soviet Union, with the U.S.S.R. becoming the first nation to land a man on the moon in 1969.  As an American who has always been very proud of this nation’s extraordinary accomplishments in the sixties with the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, this at first seemed like it would be a dystopian set-up.  But one of the (many) great delights of this series is that the show has trended utopian.

Not everything is sun and roses on the show.  Bad things happen.  Towards the end of this second season we see a series of events unfold that seem many levels more terrifying than even the hairiest moments of the Cold War in our “real” world.  But I love that the alternate history depicted on the show is, in many ways, a preferable future to the one we’ve been living through!  It’s fascinating to see, for example, how the continuing competition between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in space pushes both nations to achieve technological innovations; to push the frontiers of space explorations; and — in the U.S. at least — to new opportunities for women and African Americans.  In fact, Ronald D. Moore (one of the three creators of the show, along with Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi), in a recent interview, described For All Mankind as “the road to Star Trek.”  That idea really tickles my fancy!!  I love thinking about the events of this series as what might have eventually led the way to Gene Roddenberry’s enduring utopian vision of the future.

(There’s a lot of wonderful Star Trek DNA in this show.  Beyond the involvement of Mr. Moore himself — who wrote extensively for Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine — there were many other Trek alum involved.  For instance, David Thompson and Bradley Weddle, who were DS9 writers who also worked with Mr. Moore on Battlestar Galactica, wrote two episodes this season.  Maril Davis was a production associate on Next Gen and DS9.  And I was delighted to see Joe Menosky, who wrote extensively for Next Gen and then Voyager, write a script this season.  Trek even sneaks onto the actual show itself!  I smiled when Wrath of Khan was came up — with one character spoiling the movie’s ending in an act of pettiness to another.  But possibly my favorite moment in the entire season came during a critical moment in which African American astronaut Dani Poole (played brilliantly by Krys Marshall) quotes a memorable Captain Kirk speech from the Original Series episode “A Taste of Armageddon.”  My heart sang at the reference, perfectly deployed in a central emotional moment on the show.  I might have shed a tear…)

There’s great fun to be mined in this show’s exploration of a world unfolding similarly to our own, but with differences large and small.  It’s incredible to see many never-executed NASA projects realized on the show, just as it’s fun to hear that, say, John Lennon is still alive in this universe.

The stories are anchored in strong characters, who I really grew to love in this second season.  Yes, it stretched credibility a little bit that so many of the season one cast still looked so young here in season two, despite the amount of time that had passed.  (Unlike many other TV shows that tend to remain in the status quo, I love that For All Mankind has covered a lot of ground in its alternate history.  Season one took place between 1969 and 1974, while season two takes place over several tense months in 1983.)  (The end of this season jumps to 1995 — I wonder what that means for this cast moving forward!  Will we be seeing a lot of old-age makeup?  Will they recast, or introduce new younger characters?  I’m curious, and excited, to see how this is handled…)

The standout character for me in season two was Michael Dorman as Gordo Stevens.  Gordo was broken by the events of season one.  When season two opens, he’s a pretty pathetic overweight has-been.  His crawl back to life over the course of the season really took my by surprise; I wasn’t expected to be nearly as invested in his journey.  But by the end, Gordo’s story was my absolute favorite.  Although there were many, many other great stories to choose from!

As in season one, it’s the women of the show who were the main stand-outs for me.  I loved Tracy Stevens (Sarah Jones), a pioneering female astronaut in season one.  They started her in season two in an ugly place — as a self-absorbed talk-show star whose fame seemed to have gone to her head.  I questioned that move at first, but as with Gordo, the show gradually hooked me into Tracy’s journey over the course of the season, which in hindsight played out note-perfectly.  Sonya Walger was once again phenomenal as the fiercely brave and tough Molly Cobb.  I hated what the show did to her in the premiere — but only because I love this character so much!! — but (are you detecting a trend here?) I wound up loving the way her story played out over the course of the season.  Seeing this undefeatable character humbled was tough, but so moving.  I continue to love Wrenn Schmidt as the brilliant, extremely straight-laced Margo Madison.  I quite enjoyed her sweet flirtation with her Soviet counterpart Sergei.

I was very interested in the story of young illegal immigrant Aleida Rosales in season one, even though it often felt disconnected from the rest of the show.  So I was delighted that they paid off Aleida’s story here in season two.  Unlike the other characters, they made the (wise) decision to recast the role.  (The actress who played Aleida in season one was terrific!!  But she was too young to play the adult version of Aleida.)  Coral Peña was great in the role.  I also loved the new character of Kelly Baldwin, Ed and Karen Baldwin’s adopted Vietnamese daughter, played by Cynthy Wu.  I really enjoyed Kelly’s story.

I’ve never quite understood what Hollywood sees in Joel Kinnaman.  I don’t dislike him here — he plays NASA hotshot Ed Baldwin — but as in season one, I don’t love him this character as much as I want to.  (He’s such a jerk!)  Mr. Kinnaman plays everything a little too straight for me — I miss the nuance that I feel the other characters have.  (I also think Ed was a smidge let down by the writing in the end — I wanted to better understand why he made a key decision in the finale.)

Really the show’s only major misstep in what I thought was a near perfect season was the very silly story of Karen Baldwin’s flirtation with Gordo and Tracy’s kid Danny.  I thought that was an icky story, and it didn’t feel like it went anywhere.  (That the two characters are together at a funeral at the end of the finale feels like it was an opportunity for this storyline to explode — instead, it was ignored, leading me to question what it was all for.)  This story also was an unfortunate reminder that, because of the 1983 setting, many of these characters should be a lot older than the actors look.  (So while Karen and Danny don’t look like an impossible couple on screen, when you think about their actual ages on the show are, it creates the double-whammy of being uncomfortable and also puncturing the illusion the show needs to have of these characters continuing to be played by these actors.)  The whole thing felt to me like the show was struggling to find a good way to use Karen, who was one of the only characters not directly involved with NASA.  It’s a shame, because actress Shantel VanSanten is terrific and deserved better.

That was a minor hiccup in what was a spectacular ten-episode second season.  There’s so much other great stuff that I haven’t even mentioned — and other great characters, such as closeted lesbian NASA administrator Ellen Wilson (Jodi Balfour), whose storyline continues to be quietly heartbreaking.

I really love this show.  I’m just as excited to some day find the time to rewatch these first two seasons as I am to eventually see season three, whenever it arrives.  If you’re not watching this show, I highly recommend you give it a chance!

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