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‘For All Mankind’ Review: Apple Space Drama Almost Rights the Ship in Improved Season 2

Equal parts scattershot and thrilling, the biggest strengths of this alt-Cold War saga are still in its design and ever-expanding ensemble.

For All Mankind Apple TV Molly

“For All Mankind”

Apple TV+

For All Mankind” might well be the most confounding show on television. Part of that comes from a Season 2 time-jump, when this alternate-history look at a space race that never really ended leaps into the 1980s. Plenty has changed and a surprising amount has stayed largely the same. But confusion also stems from more than just the newfangled timeline.

Apple TV+’s most ambitious series in its fledgling originals library wavers between operatic lunar exploration saga and small-scale family drama in the decision-making rooms of the Johnson Space Center and the houses within driving distance. The show, as it’s structured, can’t exist without both. The sweeping vistas near the moon’s Shackleton crater are relatively inert without an appreciation of what gets the fictional astronauts to its doorstep. The organizational power struggles back at Houston are just set-dressed board meetings unless the show can deliver on what all that planning is leading toward.

In both aspects, “For All Mankind” returns sharper than it was, though there’s still plenty of room for the show to shed its pedestrian habits and have its execution match its scope.

Season 2 starts off in a stronger position by virtue of how it executes its decade-forward time jump. There’s a somewhat extraneous montage to show how the rest of world history has played out in that 10-year gap — surprise! Reagan still ends up president somehow — but the way the show addresses each of its fictional character-based threads is a logistical success. Everyone is oriented in their new life situations without too much overt backfilling. Relationships have crumbled, kids have grown up, and the cramped Jamestown base on the moon that once struggled to house three astronauts has expanded to a full-fledged lunar base.

In the process, some of the people who took a disproportionate amount of screen time in the show’s opening episodes each settle into a nice groove as the spotlight gets refocused. Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) is a far more interesting figure as a NASA bureaucrat, managing the next wave of space explorers. Same goes for Gordo Stevens (Michael Dorman), who’s learning to live with the lasting psychological toll from his time off the planet. His ex-wife Tracy (Sarah Jones) has become a national sensation in ways that none of her colleagues ever did, a shrewd observation on the show’s part to recognize that an increased canvas of space exploration duties and technologies would bring with it an even more enhanced kind of fame.

For All Mankind Apple TV Margo Season 2

“For All Mankind”

Apple TV+

Back at HQ, Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt) finally finds herself in charge. After a season of being pushed to the side by NASA management (and, in a way, by the show itself), seeing Margo get to wrangle and fight for all the disparate elements of the astronaut program is immensely satisfying. Even as the weight of her duties crowd out so much of her chances at a personal life outside of the office, it’s hard not to see Margo’s more-centralized role in “For All Mankind” as a kind of fulcrum around which most of the season’s other improvements follow.

Still, for each character set in better footing, there are just as many examples of “For All Mankind” stumbling on the same bizarre tics that keep it from fully capitalizing on its wealth of possibilities. Some of that comes from the show’s macro-level approach to rewriting global events. Nothing in Season 2 of “For All Mankind” is as egregious as the bizarre Chappaquiddick rewrites of the first season, but there’s still a permeating beholdenness to remixing what actually transpired in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The result is a jump from merely “Forrest Gump”-ing fictional astronauts into existing archival press conferences to manipulating the sound and visuals of that footage to make a historical uncanny valley that can be downright unsettling. It’s inorganic at best, and later-season developments feel more recklessly manipulative.

From an emotional standpoint, it’s not unreasonable to expect a space story to strive for at least some subtlety, even on the backs of massive booster rockets. Yet when presented with the choice between letting a pivotal moment play out with a careful understanding of the emotional weight or drown it in a thuddingly obvious AC/DC needle drop, “For All Mankind” tends to go for the latter. When the show lets the awe and majesty of these space-age pursuits play out unadorned, there are glimpses of genuine brilliance. Too often, though, the Season 2 narrative connections get doled out like hammer blows, designed to take on ideas of regret, purpose, and sacrifice in a way that no audience member could possibly miss them.

With an ensemble this large, it’s a herculean task just to give all these players in the greater space program enough emotional depth and still have time to handle all the other explanatory moving parts. This cast is up to the task to infuse the needed pathos to make this show’s blueprints come to life. The best example might well be Sonya Walger as Molly Cobb, the pioneering member of the show’s Season 1 all-female astronaut class. In Molly’s scenes both on the moon and elsewhere, the show’s writing team and Walger strike the ideal balance between the freewheeling, personality-driven thrills of pushing the lunar frontier and recognizing the perilous reality of what that onward momentum might bring.

For All Mankind Apple TV Season 2

“For All Mankind”

Apple TV+

It’s also hard to deny the sheer amount of logistical work that goes into fashioning this world’s background details. Even if rash inexplicable character decisions have a way of sometimes muddling things, those misjudgments play out against a framework of remote bases and NASA bureaucracy and tavern ownership, in locations that feel as lived-in as they need to be. In a single sweeping design choice, the show manages to reconcile the advanced lunar stakes with where the burgeoning PC and videoconferencing tech would have been in the early ‘80s. Squaring that circle gives the show a low hum of blue-backlit retro-futurist digital aesthetics that help separate “For All Mankind” from any existing decade-based visual tropes.

For a show that spent most of its early run treading water as the various pieces on its timeline locked into place, Season 2 of “For All Mankind” certainly makes a concerted effort to deviate from the status quo. The show isn’t shy about tipping its hand early with some extra attention from other US government entities — John Marshall Jones as the official Defense envoy to Houston is a true highlight among the Season 2 additions — and watching the implications of that outside pressure play out is certainly a sign that “For All Mankind” can really move when it wants to.

At the risk of crossing the genre streams, when those Season 2 ramp-ups do come, it’s like what an old hobbit once said about butter scraped over too much bread. Even with 10 episodes at its back, there’s too much narrative ground to cover with the roster of folks at its disposal. “For All Mankind” is not always the most efficient show, so when the lesser-known figures in this alt universe are tasked with making some pivotal turning points land, a few of those moments end up feeling weightless by comparison. There’s rarely a time in “For All Mankind” where these big swings are unwelcome, but the show still has a little more to go before all its storytelling tools are calibrated to deliver the kind of imagination it so clearly (and, often, thankfully) has.

Grade: B-

“For All Mankind” Season 2 premieres Friday, February 19 on Apple TV+. New episodes debut weekly.

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