Pop Culture

Stop Sleeping on the AppleTV+ Space Drama For All Mankind

The series, now in its second season, presents an intriguing alternate reality—what if the U.S. lost the Space Race—that blends the pleasures of period dramas with the thrill of the unknown.
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Courtesy of Apple TV+

On the latest episode of For All Mankind, a United States astronaut, while hovering on the moon, fires a gun that’s painted white. He’s shooting at a practice target. He misses.

The other astronauts inspect the target for a bullet hole. They can’t find one. “It could be in orbit,” a woman suggests. “No one’s ever shot a rifle here before, so for all we know, that bullet might be going around the moon, and coming right back around.”

Silence. Fear. Can that really happen? Could the bullet hit them?

They have no idea what to expect. Neither do we, and the entire scene is both familiar and jarring; they look like normal astronauts (puffy space suits, domed helmets), but normal astronauts don’t lug guns. And this is the slow-burn appeal of For All Mankind, Apple TV’s overlooked epic, set in an alternate reality where the Soviet Union beat the U.S. to the moon. In this timeline the space race never ends—it escalates. The U.S. doubles its efforts to claim space superiority, working towards goals that our real world timeline has long ago abandoned: permanent lunar bases, a manned mission to Mars, and from there a push to the outer Solar System.

It’s a hell of a hook. So in 2019, when Apple unveiled its slate of original programming, FAM seemed like a natural flagship property. But critics yawned, viewers opted for Ted Lasso or The Morning Show, and even Apple TV seems to have forgotten about its space epic, now more than halfway through a 10-episode second season. It’s no longer featured at the top of the app, it doesn’t seem to appear in “New Originals,” and sometimes the only way to even locate the show is to scroll to the far end of the dramas category, where it’s grudgingly featured as the 12th out of 12 shows — the last kid picked for the kickball team.

Just as the world moved on from the space race, people seem to have lost interest in For All Mankind. It’s hard to blame them. The early episodes of Season 1 are the weakest of the series, pocked by wooden dialogue and conflicts that feel pat — the skirt-chasing astronaut who makes his wife jealous, the pilot who chafes at orders to “play it safe,” the plucky NASA engineers who brainstorm clever solutions. It feels like maybe showrunner Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica, Outlander) is squandering his juicy premise, playing it too safe.

By Season 2, everything is stronger. The writing is crisper, the pacing tighter, and the characters are given quiet moments to grapple with loss and shame, regrets and heartache. And then you realize that Moore has quietly created a new genre —let’s call it “Barely Altered Timeline,” or the BAT —which blends the pleasures of period dramas with the thrill of the unknown. Typically, altered history shows like The Man in the High Castle create a world so different from ours that it’s almost cartoonish, with giant swastikas on billboards in Times Square. Here the differences are subtle. And this is what puts For All Mankind in the running (along with Snowfall) for The Best Show No One’s Watching.

Courtesy of Apple TV+

Traditional NASA stories, even the best of them, are hamstrung by the obvious fact that we know what happens. (Show me one person who thought Tom Hanks might die in Apollo 13.) Moore sidesteps that problem. Will John Glenn return to space? Will Neil Armstrong die in an inferno? It’s fascinating to watch the timelines diverge. An emergency Senate investigation into the failure of NASA, for example, causes Ted Kennedy to cancel his trip to Chappaquiddick. Nixon ends the Vietnam war to funnel resources to the space race, which is now viewed as the most urgent front of the Cold War. Kennedy emerges as a vocal critic of Nixon’s bungling of NASA, propelling him to the White House in ’72. (Alas, the Ted Kennedy administration is dogged by a sex scandal.) Much of history plays the same; some does not. John Lennon is never assassinated, the U.S. men’s hockey team loses to Russia in the 1980 Olympics, and the first Black woman astronaut steps on the moon in the early 1970s.

All of it feels real. Archival footage gives the world a sense of grainy texture and verisimilitude, like black and white photographs of Nixon speaking on the phone with Henry Kissinger, overlaid with dialogue about the Soviets claiming the moon. On a retconned episode of The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson flirts with Tracy Stevens (Sarah Jones), one of the show’s lead astronauts, who, like many of the characters, has made the jump from Season 1 cliche to Season 2 complexity. President Reagan (now elected in ’76) gives actual speeches plucked from reality about national defense that spookily fit the show’s plot. For even the most casual of history buffs, it’s enthralling.

And now it’s clear that Moore has something to say. For All Mankind is in part a show about failure, and how our reaction to failure can make or break us. True, that is not a new idea— “the upside of failure” is now a platitude in CEO advice and TED talks. But here the concept is explored on a staggering scale. America’s national failure to reach the moon first ultimately leads to more substantial progress, in terms of both tech innovation (electric cars in the 80s) and social justice (like a quicker acceptance of Black and women astronauts.)

The show essentially interrogates the idea of American Exceptionalism. It’s easy for Americans to elide underlying social problems when chanting, “We’re number one!” But in the timeline of For All Mankind, in at least one category, the U.S.A. is only Number 2. So the country works harder. And the nation advances further. Moore stops short of early Star Trek social idealism, and the strong performances of Jones, Krys Marshall, Sonya Walger, and Jodi Balfour — playing the first wave of female astronauts, who rise to prominence in Season 2 despite sexism, racism, and homophobia — explore the work that still needs to be done.

Courtesy of Apple TV+

They say constraints breed creativity. Clearly that rings true for Moore, who is forced to cram his galaxy-sized ambitions into the front yard of space. The result is a sprawling story that covers every facet of the space race — the toiling engineers (led by Wrenn Schmidt’s Margo Madison, a delight), the astronauts’ families (initially the show’s weak link), the politics, the budget, the West Wing-style walk-and-talks for NASA execs and their DoD counterparts, as they debate the appropriate role of the military.

The bureaucracy grounds the show and gives it credibility. This tees up moments of quiet dread, like when a moon-exploring astronaut, Ed Baldwin (the glowering Joel Kinnaman, in his finest work since The Killing), first comes face-to-face with a Russian cosmonaut. One of them holds a tool that could be used as a weapon. They stare at each other. This is a genuine moment of geopolitical tension, distilling the stakes of the Cuban Missile Crisis into a setting that’s both intimate and fraught. If Baldwin strikes the cosmonaut, does this ignite a war with Russia that will dominate the next forty years?

The show balances that risk of menace with an earnest sense of wonder, channeling the purest hopes of NASA’s glory years, when my parents’ generation collectively stared at their TVs, awestruck, as the rockets blasted from Cape Canaveral and heroes literally reached for the stars. For All Mankind injects a jolt of that old-timey optimism—like when a team of astronauts stands to watch, awestruck, as the rays of the sun first appear on the moon’s dark horizon. Their helmets illuminate, they are bathed in light, and as Jeff Russo’s stirring score kicks in, the sheer majesty and grandeur of space was enough to move me to tears.

While the early episodes felt too safe and too small, there are hints that Moore has smuggled in some narrative tricks that are Game of Thrones-level epic. In the pilot, a young girl fascinated by NASA, Aleida Rosales (Olivia Trujillo), anchors a subplot that feels like it’s in a different show that’s more about immigration than space. Aleida doesn’t interact with any of the show’s leads. She’s literally in a different world. Yet she remains curiously prominent, and it’s not until the middle of Season 2, in 1983, when she’s a young woman (now played by Coral Peña), that her engineering brilliance is unleashed in NASA.

This is a telling bit of patience by Moore. It implies the show is playing a long game that extends decades. When the teenage kids of astronauts (the show’s current leads) apply to the Naval Academy in Season 2, it opens up the possibility that they’ll emerge as the primary astronauts in future seasons that may take us as far as the ‘90s and aughts, or beyond. (Apple, miraculously, has green-lit Season 3. It turns out $195 billion in cash can be useful.) If the show goes this route, we’ll be treated to a half-century of alternate history through the prism of characters we grow to love, a feat that, to my knowledge, has never been attempted.

I’m all in. Take me to the moon, take me to Mars, and take me to this strange yet familiar world of dreams and discovery. It’s true the show got off to a bumpy start. But as with all great NASA stories, it’s not about the rocky lift-off. It’s about what happens when in flight, when in orbit, and when they stick the landing.

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