Apple TV’s For All Mankind is the best recent example of prestige TV.

by | Jun 6, 2022 | All, Reviews

America is reeling from a gigantic loss in the Cold War – of prestige, of humiliation. In other words: A Red Moon. We are introduced to Ronald D. Moore’s For All Mankind as it throws us for an alternate history style scenario establishing the gauntlet from the get-go by planting a Soviet flag on the moon in the first few minutes and immediately lets you know of its mission statement: what if the Soviets beat America to the moon? It’s a thrilling ‘what if?’ scenario; only For All Mankind is grounded in a more real place. This takes the concept of alternate history and runs with it, creating a fully realised world and introducing us to an ensemble of Top Gun-Esque pilots forced to reckon with their failures and the fact that they weren’t quick enough to get to the moon first. Armstrong does – but the man that could have beaten the Russians but decided not to is Ed Baldwin; Hanna’s Joel Kinneman – who is living with the shame of being a man who could have won America the moon.

Not quite Armstrong then – but we immediately see the Americans forced into a position that they haven’t been in before, catchup mode – reckoning with failure after failure – this is a pre-Vietnam America – where there’s still room for the money to not go to the war effort but to into NASA – and the cold war finds itself on the verge of only getting hotter and hotter. NASA vow not to stop there – they may have lost the moon, but the Americans dream of a bigger prize: Mars.

 

Like most shows, For All Mankind takes a while to get going. But by episode 3 it finds its grove – the Americans learn that the Russians are putting a woman on the moon – so they decide to one-up them by sending their woman to the moon first, advancing the equal rights movement forward ahead of its time in reality. Every act is made by the Americans trying to look good. This is a picture of a NASA that’s struggling with the demands of a President in the middle of a Cold War. Subtle changes to history are played out in the background like a series of tumbling dominos – one minor change becomes greater down the line – and the gradual escalation of tension benefits from For All Mankind’s character-driven approach. For comparisons to shows think Halt and Catch Fire or Mad Men, but in space – and you’ll get something along these lines. As one of the big original AppleTV+ series along with Dickinson, The Morning Show and See For All Mankind, in part due to its genre origins – has always been a hard sell. But in the hands of Moore – a Star Trek, Outlander and Battlestar Galactica veteran – you’re almost certainly in the right hands – this is a creator who puts as much effort into his world-building as he does his characters, and For All Mankind showcases the true extent of alternate history storytelling – far more confident than the likes of The Man in the High Castle.

Utilising stock footage and impersonations of JFK and Richard Nixon, the series instantly evokes a time and place with plenty of pop culture references to the era. It’s a must see for those who enjoy the small details – but the real draw is its willingness to give the traditionally stoic leading men a backseat for much more compelling characters, Joel Kinnamans Ed Baldwin is pushed aside after season one for an office job – and Michael Dorman’s Gordo Stevens’ transformation is one of the more emotionally heartbreaking character storylines in recent memory. For All Mankind deliberately started with these stereotypes to see how quickly it could upend them and turn them away from your expectations.

Nixon’s Women is the episode that sees the series change for the better – multiple women are put in the astronaut pool, Danielle Pool (Krys Marshall) becomes the first Black astronaut and Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger) finds herself opposite her. The show even introduces real-life figures like Sally Ride as they show up roughly where they would in the real world, with new jobs and new purposes. But characters like Tracy Stevens, Gordo’s wife, played by Sarah Jones, get some of the most compelling story arcs and the series establishes early on that none of these astronauts are perfect and everyone has flaws – they’re well rounded and complex figures with past demons of their own. For all the alternate history worldbuilding at play, For All Mankind succeeds by giving you a reason to care and keeping things personal – character relationships form and break apart, reform again as the series progresses – the Gordo and Tracy storyline is one of the show’s most compelling arcs, and Ed Baldwin’s goes through some compelling tragedy in his own personal life too – hard-to-watch, but brilliant television all the same – it’s the rare drama that knows what to do with almost everyone, bar one of or two – of its characters and they feel like smaller pieces of a larger puzzle.

The first season’s triumphs are high, and they are many – the culmination of a character-driven action-packed finale ends with tragedy on all accounts, and sets the stage for a second season that plunges you back into it. Ronald D. Moore is the master of long-form storytelling – so it takes a while to find its mark; but the patience pays off – the pieces come together in the finale which is one of the best episodes of the year that it came out in, grand-standing in triumph and heartbreak in equal measure, putting its characters through the wire.

Whilst Ed’s wife, Karen (Shantel VanSanten) gets the short straw of the storytelling in an ill-advised affair with a younger man who was the best friend of her son, everything else in Season 2 feels like a home run, with For All Mankind more acutely aware of time passing than few other shows of a similar scale – by the end, we’ve moved from the 1960s to the 1990s – and astronauts have landed on Mars – the next step in the discovery of the new frontier. It comes at a cost – it all does, the loss of Tracey and Gordo – the beating heart of the characters in Season 2 leaves a heavy shadow on Season 3, but the set-up for Season 3 couldn’t be more tantalising, riffing on current affairs as ever – the show launches in a three-way race for Mars, the Russians and America are joined instantly by a third private sector figure – and the gauntlet is thrown down for the return of AppleTV+’s best and brightest.

Season 3 moves into the 1990s – There is a widespread shift to nuclear fusion from fossil fuels, slowing global warning. Montage with Beatles Reunion Tour; Baby Jessica’s rescue, The Hand of God; Michael Jordan, all sorts of things new and familiar – subtle nods that lead to Nirvana and the rise of Grunge – Ellen (Jodi Balfour) feels like she’s wrapping up her run in a series of montages against Clinton; both letting their ambitions dictated by the space race. It’s a classic montage – as banging as ever for For All Mankind standards and great way to start the series, and instantly appeals.

Our characters have aged. Bearing in mind we first met them in the 1960s. The first episode catches up with us after a time jump where we get to see impressive visual effects: a functioning spaceship on the edge of the world opening the new frontier. People change and move on since the past – and history changes with them – and Sarah Boyd’s direction is suitably impressive to kick things off; Margo (Wrenn Schmidt) typically still lives and sleeps literally, right next to her office – and is a Stephen King fan, a reader of Misery. The little touches that make For All Mankind’s world feel real and lived in are always present – and always welcomed, creating a greater split between known and unknown quantities.

The Red Planet is the main objective that the trailers have teased, and the Russians are already launching their objective with the intent of keeping their record. Baldwin and Danielle Poole are the main contenders for this mission for NASA – it has been weeks since they narrowed it down to the two figures. Much of this early stage of Polaris is establishing not just the function of the space-station itself; an Alien type vessel given an AppleTV+ budget makeover; but also establishing the stakes of this series – one of constant escalation. Both Poole and Baldwin have visually aged – Karen is now running Polaris as a hotel that even hosts weddings – for Tracy and Gordo’s son, whose loss still looms large going into the season; but there’s been a separation for them both – the marriage has taken its toll on Karen and Ed and they have moved on, with a new lifestyle and new other-halves.

Margo is insistent that Danielle Poole is the right choice for the NASA mission – she’s commanded more missions than anyone else in the service in the last 10 years, but she’s receiving pushback for being too by the book and cerebral by Molly Cobb. Molly believes Ed is equipped to handle the unknown and the deep space – Margo accuses him of being old, which Molly counters with “experience”. Molly’s in charge as head of the astronaut office; taking over Ed’s job from him – and the degree of friction between the two is instant, and likewise – that spirals over to Danielle and Ed – both characters’ narratives journey throughout this season in ways that have been, like the rest of the show – incredibly planned. As is with alternate history, having a character run against a real-life president in Bill Clinton would have been entirely unpredictable, but as is the nature of an alternate history show: there are few fixed points and allowing characters to grow beyond their initial astronaut role represents very real-world affairs – characters don’t stay airborne forever and with the time jumps the series has to find something new to do with them.

I like that For All Mankind keeps the characters in an ever-revolving door of different roles – meaning that the first episode; like that of Season 2, is devoted to catchup – even exploring where Sergei (Piotr Adamczyk) and Margo are now – and letting us know where everyone is – few are where they were at the start of the series and the show – despite still being in the 1990s, has never been one to stay stuck in the past. Its focus is on moving forward at every turn – perhaps aware of the criticisms that Season 2 was a bit of a slow starter that only really picked up in the last few episodes and came together at the end – it’s a fantastic start that gives even the boardroom sequences additional edge. The drama is kept high not just externally between the three factions, but there’s also a drama on the ground – protestors about the Americans devoting so much funding into the space race when they should be looking at fixing the planet’s own problems is an issue that is not unique to For All Mankind; Damien Chazelle touched on it briefly in First Man, but it’s good to see it loud and clear.

The next generation is expanded on as we go – Tracy and Gordo’s elder son Danny (Casey Johnson) – is living with the weight of being Tracy and Gordo’s son, and the celebrity sons and daughters of the original series’ principal cast have to grow up in their presence where they’re living with heroes. Season 3’s established theme of nepotism and characters living with the consequences of that comes through – these characters age with their time-jumps, and the baggage that comes with that has been one of the series’ main driving factors. For all the alternate history that has been the show’s main appeal; the characters are as human and as real as they come.

With the new comes the threat of a third party removed from both that of Russia and America – an Elon-Musk type figure in Dev Ayesha, (Edi Gathegi) is billed as a visionary with his sights set on the stars – it’s For All Mankind’s trajectory into universal narrative that feels like a true heir to the prestige drama television throne – the constant forward-thinking of its narrative means it’s best tailored to a binge-watch as ever; the series’ slower initial pace leads to a greater payoff further down the line, seductively pulling you in and keeping you there – not keeping the answers in the dark as previously, and whilst a questionable storyline that was present in the second season is also continued; it isn’t quite as glaring as the previous season – “it was a mistake” almost feels like an apology for writing that narrative in there in the first place.

Polaris on an exciting note – a literal wedding crasher – propels the story by placing the characters that we’ve grown to love in immediate danger. This show can up the ante from zero to a hundred in less than a minute and the premiere is no different; with all the thrills and excitement of the new Top Gun. This is a show that isn’t afraid to kill off its main cast; hell, we last Tracy and Gordo both last season – so the sense of mortality; of vulnerability has never felt so real.

The third season then; continues For All Mankind’s form. The gradual slow build of the series is excellent from start to finish – the initial few episodes feel like deadline day in a transfer window as characters switch allegiances and third parties reveal themselves – the second episode, Game Changer, delivers on that in a big way, finding room for characters whose stories it has been building to from the start, and delivering on them with well-rewarded payoff. As always; patience is the watchword here, but if you’ve stuck with it this long you’ll know that it still has an ability to shock and surprise; and with a three-way race driving the series forward, For All Mankind moves at a momentum that gave it its initial, super compelling edge.

Season 3 of For All Mankind drops weekly on Apple TV+ from Friday 10th June.

Milo Milton-Jefferies

Milo Milton-Jefferies

06/06/2022

Milo is a TV critic who regularly spends way too much time at the cinema. His favourite shows are Doctor Who and Twin Peaks.

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