Three comedy greats try to prove their NASA chops in Moonbase 8


Moonbase 8, a new comedy series on Neon, sees a dream team of comedy actors shares a confined space as they prepare for a mission to the moon. It’s a premise that gains a little something extra by being seen in the context of confinement we’ve all experienced this year, writes Steve Newall.

Surely one person reading this passed some of their time in lockdown by pretending they were taking part in a space mission.

Anybody?

None of you?

Well, bear with me since I intend to press on in this direction regardless. Comedy has mined the perils of proximity in search of laughs for yonks, but this tale of three (theoretically) adult men sharing a lunar colony environment gains a little something extra by being seen in the context of confinement we’ve all experienced this year (even despite being shot before the Covid-19 pandemic).

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Brought to life by three actors with consummate comedy chops in the form of John C. Reilly, Fred Armisen and Tim Heidecker, Moonbase 8 is the result of the trio all wanting to work on something together, and developing this series for beloved indie studio A24 alongside director Jonathan Krisel (Tim and Eric, Portlandia, Baskets). Apparently a space program wasn’t the first idea that came to mind—the remoteness of an Antarctic base was one of the earlier suggested settings—but there’s something so wonderfully absurd in watching the cast fumble about in matching uniforms and space suits that you wouldn’t want to have it any other way.

Adding to the absurdity, the Moonbase 8 of the title isn’t on the moon at all, but is actually located in the Arizona desert. The three would-be astronauts are participating in an Earth-bound training mission, hoping to prove their chops to tackle the real thing. Perhaps inspired by weirdo cos-players “simulating” space missions in the desert with makeshift set-ups, the inhabitants of Moonbase 8 at least have the NASA seal scattered across their equipment (although with some of it a little imagination is still required, like the shipping container that functions as their airlock).

That this is a training program thankfully goes some way to explaining why these unlikely astronauts have been thrust together despite some potentially glaring age, health, intelligence and mental stability issues.

John C. Reilly leads the team as Robert “Cap” Caputo, a commercial helicopter pilot who’s being chased for the debts owed by his collapsed business. Cap fantasises about a moon mission as some form of redemption in the eyes of others—although one could hazard a guess as to whether the dream of flying to the moon (or participating in the remoteness of the Moonbase 8 program itself) is just a rationalisation to justify running as far away from his creditors as possible.

Also seeking altitude, in an emotional sense, is Fred Armisen’s Dr. Michael “Skip” Henai—in this case trying to ascend to the achievements of his legendary NASA father. Skip’s spent his whole life trying to live up to what everyone sees as his potential, but this has really just manifested itself as an averagely ok science intellect, and caused perhaps a touch too much polite passive-aggressiveness for comfort.

Somewhat playing against type, Tim Heidecker’s character Professor Scott “Rook” Sloan is the nicest of the bunch. An Evangelical Christian tasked with spreading the gospel to the Universe, what could easily have been a mean-spirited characterisation is somewhat surprisingly handled with gentleness by Heidecker. Even when Rook sees his pastor (responsible for urging him into the program) getting way too chummy with his wife and many children, Heidecker restrains himself from the often explosive performance we’ve seen from him elsewhere.

Unsurprisingly, given what’s going on with these three, there’s no rush from NASA to get these guys into orbit. As the series opens, they’ve hit their 200th day in the desert, with no end in sight. As the crew continue to perform menial tasks and make out like they’re actual astronauts, they’d be forgiven for wondering whether they’re actually stuck in some bizarre Spaceship Earth-style experiment as unwitting subjects.

But so deluded are the three by their own motivations (and personality problems) that they cannot conceive of this being anything other than a means of proving their worth to NASA and achieving their increasingly unlikely dreams. While this may be unfortunate to them, it’s in the service of our entertainment as Cap, Skip and Rook continue to blunder and bicker through their days in the desert, even if they may find themselves  marooned on Earth when all’s said and done.