They say constraints breed creativity. Clearly that rings true for Moore, who is forced to cram his galaxy-sized ambitions into the front yard of space. The result is a sprawling story that covers every facet of the space race — the toiling engineers (led by Wrenn Schmidt’s Margo Madison, a delight), the astronauts’ families (initially the show’s weak link), the politics, the budget, the West Wing-style walk-and-talks for NASA execs and their DoD counterparts, as they debate the appropriate role of the military.
The bureaucracy grounds the show and gives it credibility. This tees up moments of quiet dread, like when a moon-exploring astronaut, Ed Baldwin (the glowering Joel Kinnaman, in his finest work since The Killing), first comes face-to-face with a Russian cosmonaut. One of them holds a tool that could be used as a weapon. They stare at each other. This is a genuine moment of geopolitical tension, distilling the stakes of the Cuban Missile Crisis into a setting that’s both intimate and fraught. If Baldwin strikes the cosmonaut, does this ignite a war with Russia that will dominate the next forty years?
The show balances that risk of menace with an earnest sense of wonder, channeling the purest hopes of NASA’s glory years, when my parents’ generation collectively stared at their TVs, awestruck, as the rockets blasted from Cape Canaveral and heroes literally reached for the stars. For All Mankind injects a jolt of that old-timey optimism—like when a team of astronauts stands to watch, awestruck, as the rays of the sun first appear on the moon’s dark horizon. Their helmets illuminate, they are bathed in light, and as Jeff Russo’s stirring score kicks in, the sheer majesty and grandeur of space was enough to move me to tears.
While the early episodes felt too safe and too small, there are hints that Moore has smuggled in some narrative tricks that are Game of Thrones-level epic. In the pilot, a young girl fascinated by NASA, Aleida Rosales (Olivia Trujillo), anchors a subplot that feels like it’s in a different show that’s more about immigration than space. Aleida doesn’t interact with any of the show’s leads. She’s literally in a different world. Yet she remains curiously prominent, and it’s not until the middle of Season 2, in 1983, when she’s a young woman (now played by Coral Peña), that her engineering brilliance is unleashed in NASA.
This is a telling bit of patience by Moore. It implies the show is playing a long game that extends decades. When the teenage kids of astronauts (the show’s current leads) apply to the Naval Academy in Season 2, it opens up the possibility that they’ll emerge as the primary astronauts in future seasons that may take us as far as the ‘90s and aughts, or beyond. (Apple, miraculously, has green-lit Season 3. It turns out $195 billion in cash can be useful.) If the show goes this route, we’ll be treated to a half-century of alternate history through the prism of characters we grow to love, a feat that, to my knowledge, has never been attempted.
I’m all in. Take me to the moon, take me to Mars, and take me to this strange yet familiar world of dreams and discovery. It’s true the show got off to a bumpy start. But as with all great NASA stories, it’s not about the rocky lift-off. It’s about what happens when in flight, when in orbit, and when they stick the landing.