Reality TV

‘For All Mankind’ Takes a Giant Leap for Competence Porn


Before the 2019 premiere of AppleTV+’s For All Mankind, series creator Ronald D. Moore told journalists that the show was partially inspired by his desire to close the gap between his childhood hopes for the U.S. space program and reality, which fell far short of those dreams (and has only continued petering out since). How would the world be different if there were permanent lunar bases built in the ’70s? If one of the first retired astronauts to enter politics were a woman? If more attempts to foster comity between the U.S. and Soviet superpowers took place in extraterrestrial locations? These are all big, exciting questions, yet it’s a simpler one that underpins the series as a whole: what if the U.S. government did things that were…objectively good?

Don’t worry: season three, which premieres June 10, doesn’t downshift to dramatizing repairs on various pieces of failing terrestrial infrastructure; For All Mankind is still definitely focused on space and the people exploring it. This season’s premiere opens with a montage of big events in the show’s counterfactual timeline — grunge and Rain Man still happen, but so do Gary Hart’s 1984 presidential election and Margaret Thatcher’s assassination by the IRA — before landing in 1992, where astronaut-turned-senator Ellen Wilson (Jodi Balfour) is the Republican nominee facing Bill Clinton in the presidential election.

Meanwhile, everyone at NASA is heads down, preparing for a mission to put Americans on Mars in 1996. Veteran astronauts Danielle (Krys Marshall) and Ed (Joel Kinnaman) pause their friendly sparring over which of them will command that mission to take a pleasure trip: Ed’s ex-wife Karen (Shantel VanSanten) has taken the proceeds from internationally franchising her Houston dive bar, The Outpost, and used them to build the world’s first orbiting luxury hotel; the location is soft launching with the wedding of second-generation astronaut royalty Danny Stevens (Casey W. Johnson).

Karen’s is just the beginning for private enterprises competing in aerospace. Soon, billionaire Dev Ayesa (Edi Gathegi) is announcing that his company, Helios, is also entering the Mars race — and that Helios will be launching in 1994. Hearing this, NASA and Roscosmos both scramble to reschedule their own plans so they aren’t left behind.

Dev is an engineer, but not an aerospace specialist: he made his money solving nuclear fusion. Between his innovation and the copious reserves of fusile lunar helium, global warming in For All Mankind’s timeline has been solved. But not everyone on the show feels as lucky as we might were this breakthrough announced tomorrow. Most times we see the Johnson Space Center in Houston, or pretty much any space launch, there’s a group of workers who’ve been laid off from now-obsolete polluting energy jobs, protesting NASA’s part in their current circumstances. Danny’s younger brother Jimmy (David Chandler) — who did not follow Danny into the family business — falls in with a group of unemployed oil workers who tell him their conspiracy theories about what really happened to Danny and Jimmy’s parents on the moon in the season two finale.

If the thought of a billionaire shouldering his way into Mars exploration sounds depressingly lifelike, I can assure you that although his ego-driven actions do drive a lot of story, Dev is no Elon Musk. Amoral plutocrats who made their money in tech have, of late, been the antagonists of both fact-based series like Super Pumped and fictional movies like Free Guy. But considering it takes place in a world where America gets its first iPhone precursors and HD televisions in 1992, For All Mankind is more interested in keeping its characters grounded in reality than in tossing any cartoonish villains into the mix for the drama. On this show, when crises occur, even generally adversarial parties work together.

The closest we get to villainy is in Ellen’s plotline, which features a take on at least one real political figure we are all worse off for knowing as well as the show’s spin on a very familiar political scandal. That said, I can’t praise the show’s overall realism without noting — much as I did in my season two review last year — that the effort taken to age its stars is negligible at best. For All Mankind’s core characters were already adults when we first met them in season one; 30 years are supposed to have passed since then. Yet Ed has lost zero muscle tone, and Ellen’s face is completely unlined. I didn’t see anything in the episode-opening news montage about at-home HGH or Restylane — so what gives?

For All Mankind still stands on seemingly opposing foundations: the gripping spectacle of the astronauts’ often dangerous work, and the soothing knowledge that the experts supporting it on Earth will try to make it as safe as possible. But considering that the series illustrates how a wider variety of skills and experiences makes NASA a stronger organization, it’s disappointing how dirty this season does Molly (Sonya Walger). Molly started going blind in season two and now uses a guide dog and Braille-printed paperwork at JSC. For All Mankind thoroughly airs the challenges queer characters face in this timeline, so it’s strange that its imagination fails when it comes to Molly and her disability, and that it leaves her even more marginalized. It’s even stranger that so much of Danny’s plot is driven by the torch he improbably still carries for his partner in a doomed season two fling; apparently love triangles, like grunge and Rain Man, are another fixed point in all potential parallel universes.

Nevertheless, For All Mankind remains competence porn of the highest order — and the best show you’re probably not watching.



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