Season one of For All Mankind was a well made but often frustrating show. It too often matched cliché characterisation and glacial plot progression with great performances and some whip-snap plot turns. It didn’t help that the four characters the show focused most on were not very relatable and frequently unlikeable; Ed, Karen, Gordo and Tracey. However, after a slow start, it culminated in a gripping final 2 episodes. The scene was set for an exciting season 2. For the most part, it does not disappoint.
Episode 1 starts with an extended montage of alt-history headlines, taking us nine years ahead to 1983. There's a sense of urgency, bringing in the outer world’s influence on the inner world of NASA. Some of history stays the same, and some is different. It all seems well-considered and not just random.
As do pretty much all of the character paths and changes as we re-join them. In hindsight, it feels a lot of season one was treading water, allowing for plots to more easily fall into place in season two. Creator Ronald D Moore has said he’s planned seven seasons for this show. It doesn’t seem surprising judging by the amount of groundwork going on here.
The fall out from the death of their son Shane last season has given Ed (Joel Kinnaman) and Karen (Shantel VanSanten) fresh perspectives and while there are demons to be addressed they feel easier to connect with, giving them much more depth than ‘butch pilot’ and ‘acid-tongued wife’. However, one plot-line late in the season threatens to derail all of that good work.
The new season has mixed results for our other central duo, Gordo and Tracey. Gordo is on the speaker circuit, getting drunk and putting on weight. It’s a sad insight into what could happen after the ‘party’ is over. Michael Dorman plays it well, and it’s tragic to see. The problem is, this isn’t a show about drunk speakers. The way the writers bring Gordo back into the fold is both too obvious and too easy. Dorman does a good job, but it still feels a little forced.
Tracey, however, comes off the worst. She’s now a celebrity astronaut, appearing on Carson and living in a mansion. It’s the most frustrating and even stupid thing about this season. Almost all nuance is given up for the character, and I genuinely felt sorry for actor Sarah Jones. Also, does anyone even care whether she and Gordo are together? I don’t.
Elsewhere is where the show comes alive. The beauty of this sprawling show is the large ensemble. The well of characters to draw from is deep, smaller characters are expanded like government lackey Thomas Paine, and Bill Strausser and even Margo’s new secretary has some great smaller moments.
Speaking of which, Wrenn Schmidt as Margo, by far the best character, is now heading up NASA and having no time for your crap, thank you very much. With many angles to play and layers to reveal, actor Wrenn Schmidt is quietly giving one of the best performances on TV right now. Ellen (Jodi Balfour) also gets to grow into a new role on the administrative side, wrestling with the increased government and military influence as well as her secret sexuality. Sonya Wagner as Molly, upgraded to series regular this year, is a big part of episode 1 and continues to be a joy to watch the rest of the season. Krys (Danielle Poole) is also trying to discover her legacy and how she finds her place in the African-American story. Considering how history has developed, I hope we dig more into her story over coming seasons.
There’s plenty of character work going on which all provides a fantastic appetiser to GUNS ON THE MOON!
Only joking, though as you can see from the poster that does happen. No, what we want is more space action! Season 1 finally went there at the end, and you’ll get more here, but importantly, it’s not at the expense of plot.
While season 1’s outside threat of the Soviet’s space plans was, for the most part, out of sight, season 2 sees it become much more influential. Now we’ve moved past the point of actually trying to GET to the moon, NASA and the Soviets now want to assert their pressence. This brings them into much more direct conflict, political and otherwise. Margo, Ellen and others have to deal with all the political machinations of governments wanting to flex their insecure muscles as well as who to pick for the next mission to the moon. It’s the strongest part of the season’s plot arcs.
Increasingly the characters are dealing with the ongoing toll of these missions, all the while grappling with their place in history and what legacy each other, as well as NASA, will leave. When the show drills into this, it makes for some great moments, even as we look forward to the next moment IN SPACE!
The first episode is a thrilling hour. Giving the characters plenty to do early on, it culminates in a pulse-pounding final few minutes. The seasons opening episode is the show at it’s most potent - building on strong characterisation, engrossing direction and a pretty sizeable special effects budget; it will have you counting the days until episode 2 (you don’t get the first three episodes at once this time).
For All Mankind season two is an example of a maturing show; building on what’s gone before while learning from its missteps and introducing more high drama. It can still be a little cheesy in parts (there are TWO impromptu singalongs in the first 3 episodes) and one or two plots threaten to slip into cliché, but above it, all the writers never lose sight of the fact that character is king. Succeed with that, and it only enhances the thrills and fun of the plot. It’s what makes the best entertainment and what makes this show thoroughly enjoyable, even as it shows it’s potential to become truly great in years to come.
Season two of For All Mankind premieres on Apple TV+ February 19th.