During the premiere of the third season ofOn I wasn’t looking at my phone once. This never happens.
The episode, which put several main characters at a failed wedding aboard what was supposed to be the first space hotel, was a tense introduction to what is likely to be a tense season.
The hotel is built on the idea that centrifugal force creates gravity, and when a piece of debris hits one of the thrusters, causing the spin (and gravity) to increase, the characters struggle to put one foot in front of the other. I half expected the Doctor to show up in the TARDIS, because a seemingly doomed spaceship in the middle of a party is exactly where he’d probably show up.
It was an episode that blended futuristic sci-fi, intense relationship dynamics, and action movie excitement into one breathless hour that literally ended with a gasp. It perfectly represents why For All Mankind has become one of the strongest shows on television right now. But for some reason few seem to be paying attention.
For All Mankind originally launched on Apple TV Plus in 2019. FAM didn’t exactly achieve hit status.
The premise of the show is very interesting: The Soviets got to the moon first and the Cold War practically never ended because both superpowers started an arms race in space. In a relatively short time, the Moon becomes a busy place, housing bases for the Americans and Russians. It turns out that the first step was not so much for humanity as for the military-industrial complex.
At a time when billionaires are jumping on rockets and Elon Musk is talking about pizzerias on Mars, there seems to be a huge appetite for space travel as a concept. One would think that a show like FAM, which offers a tantalizing view of an alternate universe where humanity bravely sets out for the stars, would be a no-brainer.
But space shows struggle — at least those that adhere too tightly to real-world dynamics. Take Hulu’s The First, which spent its one season exploring the red tape that ensued after a rocket to Mars exploded shortly after launch. Nat Geo’s Mars was a fascinating deep dive into the problems humans will face as they colonize the red planet. It was canceled after two seasons.
The first season of FAM felt like it might go in the same direction. Iupon his release. One of my main complaints was that it took half of the 10 hour running time to really deviate from our familiar timeline. Of course, there were differences – John Lennon was never killed, women – and in particular a black astronaut named Danielle Poole (Chris Marshall) – got to space much faster on the US side. But overall, the show tried to balance period drama, workplace drama, and sci-fi, and it didn’t always do it well.
Like Space Hotel, FAM finally started rolling at the right speed in its second season, which combined sci-fi, politics, and relationship drama—and combined those elements in an unwatchable season finale where America and Russia drove a another on the brink of nuclear war in space.
For all mankind it achieves this fusion because it follows its loose ends. Introducing a small detail can play a significant role later, leaving the audience hungry for more.
And the payoffs are always satisfying, making clever use of the time jumps, jumping 10 years ahead each season. Relationships, including old hurts, have time to simmer, heal, and reopen in a way that feels natural and believable.
These time jumps also signal that the show has learned to get to the action. The third season is set in the 1990s and shows the renewed space race between the United States, the Soviet Union and the private company Helios. FAM spends plenty of time on the conflict you might expect, choosing a commander and crew for the mission. Fortunately, it fast-forwards two years and sends everyone to Mars in the third episode.
In some ways, it’s hard to explain why For All Mankind works as effectively as it does. In an age where prestige is almost a requirement for any new drama, it’s easy to get lost in a sea of shows that at least see as if they are good. For all of humanity, it may not necessarily be perfect, but it evokes a general sense of authenticity. Everything that unfolds seems completely believable, you feel that the characters really live their lives in this universe of the 1960s.
As season three heads to Mars, For All Mankind is worth the trip.
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