Whether one considers it to be true or not, America prides itself on being the very best. That means that we have have the best minds, the best workers, and the best space program. “For All Mankind,” the new series from Apple TV+ premiering on November 1, posits how this nationwide self-esteem would be challenged if the Russians were the first human beings to land on the moon. Instead of Neil Armstrong, it’s a random Russian man who places his feet on the moon surface and speaks proudly about Marxism, while a bar full of Americans watch in silence. The series firmly and ambitiously casts America as second-best, and wonders how that would make us feel.
These are the starting moments for the series, co-created by Matt Wolpert, Ben Nedivi and Ronald D. Moore, who toy with time and history in a manner that’s more contemplative than it is wholly entertaining. Their curiosities lie in what steps would follow after such a “loss”—and in deconstructing what's behind American confidence—but the questions and twists the creators throw in can't help the series maintain enough momentum long after that great opening.
We might have been the first, the series imagines, were it not for Edward (Joel Kinnaman). He was part of a NASA mission that got close to the moon but turned back due to reasons provided later, and it’s a decision that continues to haunt him and his co-pilot Gordo (Michael Dorman). The day after the Russians walked on the moon, hard-edged NASA boss Deke Slayton (Chris Bauer) even instructs all of his NASA men to take the rest of the week off, to be mad, to get drunk and “kick their dog.” Transforming their silent frustration into bottle-smashing recklessness, Edward and his NASA peers race through traffic in their convertibles, and proceed to get wasted at a dive bar. Edward talks trash about NASA to a random patron who doesn’t announce that he’s actually a reporter, and it’s another black eye for Edward's mission. Not only does America have a broken spirit, but the upcoming Apollo 11 crew of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins have to nail their own moon landing so that America can stay in the space race.
Apollo 11 is a success in its own way, and by the second episode, America is fixated on space. Nixon wants to beat the Russians any way he can, and there are loftier ideas that are heavily considered, like weapons, and a station on the moon. But while these elements might sound like intriguing additions to the series’ atmosphere, their power is lessened by dull boardroom conversation scenes and a slow narrative rhythm.
The show is designed to offer only a slightly different type of history—it’s a new reality that imagines NASA’s success as essential to patriotism, and in the first three of the hour-long episodes, the plotting leads to some naturally big changes. Real people are included in this story, like genius German scientist Wenher Von Braun (Colm Feore), the highly renowned John Glenn, and references to “Midnight Cowboy,” or “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
But while certain developments arrive with either a big wink or a finely calibrated surprise, it’s more that the show tends to run dry with its creative liberties. One sequence in the third episode, for example, in which a historic roster is picked, is far too stuffy; the series’ interest in alternate history can make for cheesy corrections. It's a reoccurring problem for the show, where the more complex ideas just make obvious how simple the other parts are.
“For All Mankind” is best when it ventures into complicated thematic territory, like when it depicts a resistance to taking a risk. Edward wrestles with what he could have done regarding his failed mission, and it is interesting to see the story seek compassion for his failure, in spite of its ramifications. “For All Mankind” has a more natural, complex way of getting to American pride, instead of creating an infallible being.
Kinnaman is just one piece of a cast that is strong all around, but you like them so much that you wish even more they were given more to work with. It becomes redundant to watch plainly gruff NASA leaders debate about what's next in the space race, despite the series hoping that it all creates a you-are-there tension as the series charts its own path through history. Then there are actors the show loses focus of, like Wrenn Schmidt, who is compelling as the hardworking Margo Madison, the first woman to get into mission control. While juggling its many characters in various positions of power at NASA, the series becomes an example of another enterprise that spreads its charisma thin.
Instead, some hope of intrigue comes with a focus on the personal relationships that inform who these people are outside of their job roles. In the series’ way of challenging history, “For All Mankind” makes fascinating strides to present the spouses of these astronauts as more than just that, even though the men have a professional significance that hangs over their quiet suburban homes. Like with Gordo and his wife Tracy (Sarah Jones)—she has big reasons to be resentful toward her husband, and later on the series details her own frustrations with opportunities not previously provided to her. But the most potent performance might come from Shantel VanSanten, who plays Karen, Edward’s wife. When Edward runs his mouth in the first episode and finds himself printed in Newsweek, she chastises him for violating the unwritten rule of silence, itself a repression of feelings. Later on, she dismissively tells him to go mow the lawn instead of dealing with his emotions in a healthier way. VanSanten offers a striking reinforcement of the toxic masculinity that corrodes Edward and others, perpetuating that way of thinking as if it were simply American.
For a series about a battle of innovation, as fueled by brilliant minds and wounded egos, “For All Mankind” feels too slack. It’s almost more interesting to look at “For All Mankind” as a metaphor for Apple TV+, which could run this series for however long this service runs, if it can keep up in the streaming wars with Netflix, Hulu, HBO MAX, Disney+, Quibi, and everything else. But along with mildly reviewed shows like “See” and “The Morning Show,” Apple TV+ simply doesn't have the best, and ambition with a series like “For All Mankind” is only going to get them so far.
Three episodes watched for review.