Apple TV+ alt-history space saga For All Mankind splashes down in the go-go ’90s in its not-really-merited third season. After another decadal jump, Nirvana is king, Bill Clinton is running for office, and we’re apparently going to Mars.
This show’s absurd single-mindedness has not been softened by its premature renewal for a fourth season, by which point presumably we’ll be traveling to the sixth dimension on a rocket sled while Avril Lavigne runs for Congress. Anyway … let’s rip off this Band-Aid.
For All Mankind recap: ‘Polaris’
Season 3, episode 1: It’s 1992, and Margo Madison (played by Wrenn Schmidt) is rich and bored now, though she’s still the head of NASA. Thomas Paine, Gordo and Tracy are long dead, with statues erected in their honor, and only a few of the original NASA crew from the first season of For All Mankind remain active.
Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall) and Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) have been sent to Polaris, a hotel in space that plays host to tourists and weddings, for a ceremony. Ed’s ex-wife, Karen (Shantel VanSanten), is already there, and they’ve each brought their respective new spouses. Karen is head of operations at Polaris now.
Veteran astronaut Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger) hasn’t died of cancer, and is still defiantly smoking like a chimney. She and Margo are currently arguing over the commander for their mission to Mars. They’re hoping to beat the Russians, once again, to a new rock in space.
Margo wants Danielle. Molly thinks she’s too smart for her own good — she wants Ed to do it. Ed and Danielle are now both in old age makeup, so I don’t know why there aren’t more qualified astronauts by now. Margo stops after work to make a payphone call behind the Iron Curtain (Reagan didn’t win in 1984, so the Iron Curtain never fell) to her cosmonaut penpal, Sergei Orestovich Nikulov (Piotr Adamczyk).
They’re still trading state secrets like baseball cards, their form of flirting. Margo doesn’t know the Russians are pushing him harder than ever to get her to start giving them information on the U.S. Mars mission.
We’re heading for Mars
Margo lives with her protege, Aleida Rosales (Coral Peña); Aleida’s father, Octavio (Arturo Del Puerto); Aleida’s husband, Victor (Jorge Diaz), and their son, Javi (Tiago Martinez). Margo surprises them all by announcing that she’s sending Aleida to the moon next week to help set up their communication system for the upcoming Mars launch.
The aforementioned space wedding is that of Gordo and Tracy’s son Danny (Casey W. Johnson) and his wife-to-be, Amber (Madeline Bertani). Jimmy, the black sheep of the Stevens family, gives a rambling toast about how much he hates NASA, but that isn’t what dampens the event. (Jimmy is played by David Chandler, who looks hilariously like a rumpled little copy of Michael Dorman, who played his dad last season — he’s even prematurely losing his hair.)
There’s a problem with the space hotel’s simulated gravity. Ed finds out when Yvonne, who hates him, throws a shoe at him and it doesn’t connect. The Polaris sends someone out to fix it, but they’re knocked off the ship by a loose cable. The ship loses gravity, Sam is killed, and Ed is injured. And then the ship starts spinning, threatening to break apart at any minute and kill everyone aboard.
Danny must climb a ladder to another deck, put on a space suit, and fix the problem — all while weighing three times his body mass in the increased gravity.
The brilliant absurdity of President Gary Hart
Credit where credit is due: This was the best episode of this accursed show I’ve yet seen. The secret here is embracing a lineage of terrible TV and just leaning into it. If you woke up someone from a coma they entered in 1971 and told them this was the newest Irwin Allen show, they’d have zero trouble believing it.
TV movies of the week used to run on all the major networks. And they all had hooks as good as this week’s For All Mankind season three premiere: a wedding in space undone by gravity trouble.
The difference is the pastor would have been played by William Holden, the hero astronaut would have been Michael Sarrazin and his philandering parents would have been Anthony Franciosa and Kim Novak. The fact that Gary Hart is supposed to be president while this is happening, having beaten George Bush or something in the ’80s, makes it all the more brilliantly absurd.
A wedding disaster … in space!
The idea of a little pocket wedding disaster movie — where the groom’s step-parents are divorced astronauts with high-key new spouses, and the groom has slept with his stepmother (he even plays the song they did it to during their first dance) — is the stuff of the best ABC Movie of the Week. I was absolutely all in.
The only problem is: What is something this fun and trashy doing on the dumbest smart show on TV? Apple TV+ pitched For All Mankind early on as a piece of deeply researched speculative fiction about what happened if the Russians beat us to the moon back in the late 1960s.
It then became an absurd and out-of-its-depth media satire with no edge and no brains. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were both painted as progressives. It was a disaster, and I had to drag myself across the last season. This season three opener? This is stupid fun and I hope the whole season goes like this.
This Week in Alternate History
So, in my favorite little boneheaded trick the For All Mankind writers and editors pull on this show, we get a montage of all the stuff that happened and didn’t happen because of the Americans not getting to space first. Briefly: Margaret Thatcher is dead, the IRA killed her, Alien and Aliens still come out, space tourism is becoming an industry, The Beatles are still around and playing reunion shows, Baby Jessica still fell in the well, Short Circuit and Rain Man were both released, Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan played Gordo and Tracy in a movie called Love in the Skies, Palm Pilots were made early, and North Korea is trying to launch ships into space.
I believe … two of these alt-history developments? Maybe?
The beautiful stupidity of For All Mankind places every single cultural development in the fate of astronauts and space exploration, which have precisely zero bearing on modern life. No, frankly, I don’t believe for a second that us trying to really up our game in the face of Russia’s supposed superiority in space would lead to Gary Hart overseeing the digital revolution a decade early while John Lennon plays Woodstock ’94.
That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. But hey, two seasons removed from the insult, I’m willing to roll with the dumbness. This is at least entertaining.
Watch For All Mankind on Apple TV+
Season three of For All Mankind premieres on Apple TV+ on June 10. New episodes follow every Friday.
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 author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.