FOR ALL MANKIND (Season 1-3)
"...a refreshingly retro devotion to honor and the common good."

One Small Step to the Best Series You Aren't Watching

(072023) It’s 1969, and a rapt world is watching the first man land on the moon — Alexei Leonov, a Soviet cosmonaut. The United States, rattled by the thought of living under a pinko moon, shakes off its crisis of confidence, fires up the Saturn V and, after a white-knuckle landing, puts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface.

I enjoyed the premiere when I first watched it in fall 2019, but I will admit to wondering: What exactly is the show here? Another right-stuff story of cocky and troubled fly-boys with a classic-rock soundtrack? How many seasons of TV can you make out of, “What if history, but slightly different?”

Suffice it to say, my imagination was too earthbound. (Well, the classic-rock bit remained accurate.) In the deceptively square and thoroughly entertaining “For All Mankind,” whose third season recently concluded, there is no such thing as a slight change to history.

In the series' second episode, the U.S.S.R. lands another cosmonaut on the moon — this time a woman, prompting President Nixon to recruit a cadre of female astronauts. The combination of a strong lunar rival and the enlistment of the other half of humanity turbo-boosts the moon race, which in real life fizzled out with the last human landing in 1972. By Season 2, which jumps ahead to the 1980s, NASA has found water on the moon and established a growing colony.

As the third season begins — well, the 1990s look different from what you might recall from “The Real World” reruns. Gary Hart is in his second term as president, having succeeded Ronald Reagan. (In 1976 Reagan defeated the incumbent, Edward Kennedy, who canceled a party at Chappaquiddick amid the 1969 lunar crisis and won in ’72.)

The Soviet Union, thriving under Mikhail Gorbachev, is in expansionist mode. We got nuclear fusion, and the Beatles have held a reunion tour, after John Lennon survived an assassination attempt. (All this reconfigured history is realized with the help of some disturbingly convincing video deep fakes.) Oh, and the United States is headed for Mars, this time in a three-way race with the Soviets and a private company led by a visionary entrepreneur (Edi Gathegi).

A lot has changed on this alternative Earth. Back in our timeline, “For All Mankind” has revealed itself as one of the most normcore-radical shows on TV, a historical thought experiment in dad-show clothing.
The co-creator Ronald D. Moore (“Battlestar Galactica,” “Outlander”) grounds “Mankind” in a fanciful but reality-based approach to sci-fi. The series is full of balletic, silent space scenes because sound waves cannot travel in a vacuum. There are no deus ex machina cheats. The show is in love with the jury-rig and engineering kludge; the Season 2 finale, involving an international crisis on the moon base, includes what has to be TV’s most emotionally devastating use of duct tape.

With its characters as well, “Mankind” takes the familiar in unexpected directions. Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman), nearly the first man on the moon, seems initially like a type — fast cars, ambition, arrogance — but deepens as he confronts how his ragey stubbornness has cost him as a husband and father.
Meanwhile, the early opening of the space program to women expands the cast’s possibilities: Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt), a geek with a mind for real politick who rises from mission control to head NASA; Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger), an astronaut whose bullheaded bravery rivals Ed’s; and Ellen Wilson (Jodi Balfour), a NASA hero turned politician and a closeted lesbian in a ’90s whose social advances have not extended to gay people.

“Mankind” is about passionate workaholics who have few boundaries between their work and home life. It understands that work relationships can be as rich, messy and emotional as family ones (even for the characters who aren’t married to colleagues). As the show’s time-span reaches a quarter century in Season 3, its characters are adjusting to a space program whose applications have become more commercial — the space-tourism business would make Richard Branson green with envy — and whose culture has moved toward scientists and away from test-pilot bravado. “The weenies in white coats are finally calling all the shots,” Ed grouses.

“Mankind” has also built a vast stable of characters, although it sometimes strain its rivets trying to service all of them. Political drama has become more central to the plot, but “Mankind” never feels as comfortable in a White House office as it does on a dusty alien surface. A soapy subplot involving Danny Stevens (Casey W. Johnson) — Ed’s troubled surrogate son, who’s now following in his astronaut parents’ boot-steps — has not improved with time. And the effort to keep central characters around can feel and look forced; Kinnaman labors under an unconvincing layer of aging makeup to play a former Korean War pilot who must at least be well into his 60s. But the Mars story line also enriches some dynamics, especially between Ed and Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall), who are fierce competitors for the first ticket to Mars but also allies who know when to set the needs of the mission — even someone else’s mission — over their ambitions.

It’s this recognition, and the thrilling moments of heroism and self-sacrifice that result, that set “Mankind” apart. In an era when great TV dramas focus on dark scheming — and when real-life space exploration has become a vehicle for billionaire ego trips — it has a refreshingly retro devotion to honor and the common good. After all, what does it mean to truly act “for all mankind”? First, as the series' alternative gender history imagines, it means including womankind too. It also means recognizing that the aspirations of the species can outweigh an individual’s, or even a nation’s (even though the show’s Soviets still veer toward Cold War villainy).

All this gives the series something unusual in top-tier TV drama now: an earned sense of optimism. History, “For All Mankind” argues, is not the inevitable product of immutable forces. It is the result of choices. Small choices make bigger choices possible. Early choices (like having women help lead us into space) make later choices imaginable (like having a woman lead the country).

“For All Mankind” excels in all the ways a space-pioneer drama needs to, including precision-ratcheted tension and white-knuckle flight maneuvers. But its secret fuel source is that blue-sky hopefulness. History, as this show imagines it, is nothing but a series of small steps — until you look back and see that they’ve added up to one giant leap.

Series Created by:    Ronald D. Moore, Matt Wolpert, Ben Nedivi
Starring:    Joel Kinnaman, Michael Dorman, Sarah Jones
Released:    Episode One Released: November 1, 2019 to present
Length:    At press time, three seasons for a total of thirty episodes. Episodes range from 46 minutes to 82 minutes in length
Available On:   Apple TV+
Rating:    TV-MA

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Review © 2023 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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