America has never lost gracefully. Exploring alternate histories where America loses usually involves the country’s moral stance defeated by a great political evil. The Nazis win World War 2; the British suppress the revolution. But what if the loss was more complicated than that? More ideologically gray. Less focused on Superman’s truth and justice, and more on his American Way. Apple TV+ asks this question with alt-history For All Mankind’s opening, where the Soviet Union stuns a watching world by beating the U.S. to the moon, and answers it with an enthralling drama dedicated to the flawed pursuit of greatness.
It’s certainly appropriate for a show about the best pilots in the world to have a great pilot episode, but its early success is matched by a show where politics and science branch in ways pleasing for space junkies and astro-nots alike. The sprawling sociopolitical butterfly effects—like how the Nixon administration reacts to, and is affected by, losing the first leg of the space race—are just one of the pleasures to be found in Ronald D. Moore, Matt Wolpert, and Ben Nedivi’s creation. After seeing eight episodes of the ten-episode season, For All Mankind has already set itself apart as the must-see show of Apple TV+.
Astronauts Edward Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) and Gordo Stevens (Michael Dorman), as well as their respective wives Karen (Shantel VanSanten) and Tracy (Sarah Jones) appear alongside real figures like Neil Armstrong (Jeff Branson) and John Glenn (Matt Battaglia) in the wake of NASA’s setback. Ed and Gordo were part of the crew that went ahead of the planned landing as a trial run. And they’re pissed. So naturally, Ed bitches about it to a reporter. As the various consequences from this action unfurl, some handed down from stern-yet-lovable Chief of the Astronaut Office/Space Dad Deke Slayton (Chris Bauer), the show states its central tenet: When handed a defeat, American pride won’t accept it. The Vietnam War, happening during the series, proved that much. Instead, they would move the goalposts and not allow the space race to end.
NASA, pushed as much by a president needing a political victory as by their own wounded pride, shoots for sci-fi. And the writing is smart. Potentially saccharine rah-rah patriotism is undermined by dashed hopes and a permeating need for American exceptionalism that is, in this version of events, proven untrue. When these hotshot military alphas straight out of Top Gun get emasculated at every turn, there’s a grasping sense of loss—revealed in eloquent, desperate speeches from Dorman, Kinnaman, and VanSanten—that removes any fantasies about some interstellar manifest destiny. Instead, the series works towards a new national culture in its large scale and quiet, workhorse dignities in its small scale. America gets back to its scrappy roots through its space program.
Those scrappy (bordering on irresponsible) elements—government employees doing their best at the behest of their overlords—see a powerhouse turn underdog. Nothing’s more humanizing than trying to break ground with equipment from the lowest bidder. Avoiding the truly sappy by showing the scars left by the program (the fuck-ups, the deaths, the near-misses, the battered relationships) earns the show its most moving moments. Rather than pure golden glow, For All Mankind leaves you smiling and ugly crying at the same time, amazed that humanity has achieved so much despite all its stupid pettiness. It wouldn’t be as amazing if they were all soft, warm Tom Hanks perfection.
Instead, we get a Mad Men meets The Martian vibe, where suspenseful problem-solving and meticulous technical details are bolstered by strong period aesthetics and ensemble relationships knit so tightly they’ll repel your needle. And did I mention that the cast (especially Dorman) is excellent? While the show can wield a West Wing-esque inspiration with the best of them, For All Mankind still delivers breath-holding exercises in anxiety. It looks great and it sounds even better. Space scenes are always keen to drop out to total silence or overwhelm their beautiful cinematography with harsh astronaut breathing that demands our attention.
One of the season’s best episodes combines it all, documenting the different stages of the astronaut training program—a would-be film montage spread into a rich, affecting, and exciting hour of TV. Tracy is recruited as a potential astronaut, allowing Jones a full episode to shine, along with other candidates like Ellen (Jodi Balfour) and Danielle (Krys Marshall). Sonya Walger is phenomenal as Molly Cobb, giving a salty and touching Frances McDormand-esque performance as the top female astronaut candidate (herself a reference to real-life Mercury 13 aviator Jerrie Cobb). But wait, wait, wait: female astronauts so early?
Yes, the decisions made in this new space race all stem from a Tricky Dick-measuring contest between white men in the White House and the Kremlin, but the ramifications are progress. Science developed for the pursuit of space travel has resulted in some of the most impactful technological advances in recent history. For All Mankind posits that progressive politics (like having black female astronaut candidates in the early ‘70s) implemented even for the sake of appearances still have popular effects that trickle down to the nation at large. Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt), literally separated off from the other team members by a glass partition at first, becomes the first woman in Mission Control. The Equal Rights Amendment passes. Women walk on the moon. America may be getting better thanks to a spiteful competitive streak, but progress has never demanded scruples.
In fact, the double-edged sword of technological advancement means Nazis, Operation Paperclip, and the Manhattan Project all complicate the shining, smiling, tear-jerking look forward. And it’s still the ‘70s. There’s plenty of room for gender role hypocrisy in this testosterone-fueled profession, where fragile masculinity and the unwanted responsibility of being a role model mold a diverse ensemble. One of the more touching segments is an early-morning, post-bar rendezvous for the Flight Center’s queer folks covering for each other.
The series, which delivers claustrophobic settings as well as wide-ranging event-based episode, touches all parts of the Flight Center. Thankfully, Mexican immigrants crossing the border in the dead of night aren’t simply symbolic reminders of America’s national identity as an aspiration-driven melting pot. Instead, they’re given lives—Octavio (Arturo Del Puerto), who gets a janitorial job at the Center, and his restless daughter Aleida (Olivia Trujillo)—that reflect the impact that this commitment to space has on an eager young woman. Every side character is worth listening to; every subplot is worth mentally noting.
Everything is so savvy, in fact, that when there is a boneheaded decision to include something that we’ve seen a million times before (a non-scientific member of the team saying “In English, please?”or an eye-rolling needle drop or a shaky CGI camera move), it’s a splash of cold water. Yet, For All Mankind is doing so much right with astronaut fiction—grounding it in mundane lives and historicity, while separating it from its big names and dates enough to reach for something more profound than documentary—that minor bumps only rattle the otherwise smooth ride in an exceptional craft. For All Mankind pursues greatness, succeeds, and plants an Apple flag for the world to see.
For All Mankind premieres Friday, November 1st on Apple TV+
Check out our reviews of the rest of Apple TV+’s inaugural programs below:
The Morning Show
The Elephant Queen
Jacob Oller is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, Interview Magazine, Playboy, SYFY WIRE, Forbes, them, and other publications. He lives in Chicago with his two cats and a never-ending to-do list of things to watch. He likes them (the cats and the list) most of the time. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.