For All Mankind lands for a new season of the same [Apple TV+ review]

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For All Mankind review: The Cold War heats up in Season 2.
The Cold War heats up -- on the moon! -- in Season 2 of For All Mankind.
Photo: Apple TV+

Apple TV+’s alternate-history space race extravaganza For All Mankind is back for a second season (with a third already paid for). Things are different on the moon but they’re very much the same in the drama department.

For All Mankind review: ‘Every Little Thing’

For All Mankind was by no means the worst thing Apple TV+ had on offer when it launched. However, it might have been the least emphatic show, and thus the least interesting. The Morning Show was bad right out of the gate and there’s always some value in badness. See was labored and silly, but the wow factor of all that money spent creating a dystopian world was at least kind of fun.

For All Mankind was just kind of … there.

Who, exactly, is For All Mankind for?

Created by Ronald D. Moore (Outlander, Battlestar Galactica), Ben Nedivi and Matt Wolpert (Entourage, Fargo), For All Mankind is the kind of show whose target audience I simply can’t picture. Fans of space travel? There’s a lot of stuff about the nuts and bolts of running a space program, but it’s not as though the last 30 years of media has had any kind of shortage of space travel content. Indeed we can barely go a year without something about the majesty of space travel and the brave men and women who make it possible.

Fans of alternate histories, perhaps? Again, sure, but the show is not like The Man in the High Castle — this is a very minor monkey’s paw, all things considered.

Not that alternative, really

Indeed, an opening montage in season 2’s first episode (titled “Every Little Thing“) shows the degree to which For All Mankind’s writers have refused to swing for the fences. John Lennon is still alive (though the show doesn’t remember that he retired from public life after Nixon’s State Department tried to deport him). Ronald Reagan was elected president four years early. Pope John Paul II was killed. Electric cars are everywhere, but Herbie Hancock still wrote “Rockit” and Bob Marley still wrote “Three Little Birds.” So it’s not like anything’s that different.

No indeed, the show kind of has to keep things from happening. Because if something catastrophic happens in your alternate history, you need to design new uniforms for cops, new currency, new left-handed sports, what have you. The show’s moon landings and shuttle launches all cost enough money as it is. Adding real, interesting changes to the timeline of world history would cost even more, and ultimately that’s not what the show is about. No, it’s about the extremely dull business of imagining that the history of space travel went … a little differently.

Don’t worry about a thing…

In case you don’t remember anything about the first season of For All Mankind, the Soviets beat us to the moon, so Richard Nixon sent women to space early and somehow that meant Watergate never happened. Astronauts Gordo Stevens (played by Michael Dorman) and Edward Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) had to share the moon glory with a couple of women, including Gordo’s wife Tracy (Sarah Jones). After German-born rocket scientist Wernher von Braun (Colm Feore) was outed as a former Nazi and forced to leave NASA in disgrace, he gifted technician Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt) enough blackmail material to guarantee her a slot at Mission Control as a parting gift.

When we resume in season 2 of For All Mankind, it’s the early 1980s. There’s now a thriving space station on the moon. Gordo has become a drunk because Tracy divorced him and he’s had to tell a fake version of the story of his first visit to the moon too many times. Tracy’s become a talk-show fixture. Margo has climbed the ladder further.

Baldwin, who’s been forced behind a desk, finally cut his stupid hair. And he and his wife, Karen (Shantel VanSanten), have bought the astronaut bar The Outpost and adopted a daughter, Kelly (Cynthy Wu), to replace their dead son.

Every little thing…

For All Mankind returns with more of that 'Gee whiz, the moon!' energy
For All Mankind returns with more of that “Gee whiz, the moon!” energy.
Photo: Apple TV+

The first episode back necessarily does some table-setting, and not just to get viewers resituated in the world of For All Mankind after more than a year away. But there is no welcome sense of reunion with any of these characters (who weren’t all that compelling to begin with). It’s more a slow recognition process. “Oh yeah, her.”

The show eventually introduces its first real conflict in a radioactive solar storm of some kind that sweeps the face of the moon, killing some of the astronauts and possibly mortally wounding Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger) when she attempts a suicidal rescue mission. But something about this kinda … doesn’t make sense to me.

Gonna be alright…

Now, I don’t know every single storm that ever struck the moon. So it’s entirely possible that this happened in the early ’80s and we just didn’t hear about it because America wasn’t on the moon at that point. But it brings up a limiting factor in the construction of For All Mankind that’s made me extremely wary about the show’s mission statement from the outset.

The thing is, yes the history of Earth can be altered, butterfly effect-style, by any number of entropic “what ifs?” But the history of the cosmos is pretty well-documented. You’ve got Halley’s Comet and that solar storm that knocked out Canada’s power for a minute in 1989, and that’s about it.

Just because Nixon’s guys never got caught in the Watergate hotel in your universe, that doesn’t then magically mean that there’s a new asteroid in the galaxy that’s going to make this show any more interesting than any other program about space history might be. I don’t know if you can have gunfights on the moon, but the moon is still the moon. And For All Mankind still isn’t that compelling.

For All Mankind on Apple TV+

The second season of For All Mankind premieres Feb. 19 on Apple TV+. New episodes will follow every Friday.

Rated: TV-MA

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.