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Steve Carell in Space Force.
Photo: Aaron Epstein/Netflix

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Can Steve Carell escape the ‘Steve Carell scream’?

Netflix’s Space Force might help shift his longtime image

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Most audiences know Steve Carell from his work as Michael Scott on The Office, or as the hapless Brick in the Anchorman franchise, or as Gru from Despicable Me. Each of those roles uses Carell’s nasal-yet-gruff voice to its fullest extent, calling upon him to scream in a tone that has become so recognizable, it has its own YouTube supercut. As Carell has moved through iterations of the everyman put under stress (Date Night, Crazy Stupid Love), that ragged scream has become the clearest way to indicate a man at the end of his rope, made funnier by how docile his characters usually are before being pushed to their extremes (The 40-Year-Old Virgin).

His particular vocal timbre is a weapon, but it also became something of a handicap as Carell moved further into dramatic territory. Space Force, now on Netflix, sees Carell’s screaming powers back at full capacity. The show is meant to be a replacement for The Office when it leaves the streaming service later this year, but it lets Carell flex his dramatic chops, too.

When Carell was announced to star in Foxcatcher, the true-crime drama based on multimillionaire John du Pont’s recruitment of Olympic gold-medalist wrestlers Mark and David Schultz, he seemed to be an unlikely pick. How would Carell, who had only been in comedies (and some comedy-dramas) up until that point, fare in such a heavy story? As it turned out: very well. Carell’s turn as John du Pont is terrifying; there isn’t a glimmer of humor to the part. The physical transformation he underwent was a dramatic one, too — Carell wore heavy facial prosthetics and assumed a near-monotone manner of speech that was as far a cry from Michael Scott as possible. It had to be, in order to preempt any comparison with his comedic work.

carell stands in a field in the mist
Steve Carell as John du Pont in Foxcatcher.
Photo: Sony Pictures Classic

But when du Pont screams and the signature reedy tone of Carell’s voice comes to the fore, suspension of disbelief becomes a little more difficult. The same holds true for Carell’s performances in Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying and Robert Zemeckis’ Welcome to Marwen; he disappears into the roles, with no trace of Michael Scott in sight, right up until his characters are called upon to yell.

Space Force finds a happy middle in that Carell’s character, the put-upon Mark Naird, is mostly a straight man to the large personalities around him. As my colleague Emily Heller perfectly put it, “[Michael Scott] is a ridiculous man doing a boring job, General Naird is a boring man doing a ridiculous job.” There are some touches of Scott’s buffoonery in Naird, in that he’s often the butt of jokes, but Naird distinguishes himself through just how seriously he takes the responsibility he’s been given. Though most of Space Force blandly pokes fun at the current administration without ever naming names, the travails Naird is forced to go through ultimately push him to moments of total earnestness. Space Force offers Carell the opportunity to dip into both comedy and drama, without trying to pigeonhole Carell into one or the other.

It’s a flexibility best demonstrated in the series’ third episode, “Mark and Mallory Go to Washington.” The climax of the episode is Naird’s testimony at a budget hearing, as all present grill him about why Space Force costs so much money. His speech encompasses the importance of not only saving the planet, but supporting the people who do the work to make sustained life on Earth possible. “Money doesn’t matter,” Naird says. “People matter.” It’s a touching moment, and in Carell’s hands, the earnestness that makes Naird an easy target for those around them easily shifts into strength. There’s no hint of irony or winking at the audience in his demeanor, in spite of the comedic asides about Flat Earthers, and drinking one’s own pee.

carell, in a military uniform, prepares to push a button
Steve Carell in Space Force.
Photo: Netflix

The series itself isn’t perfect — if anything, it’s toothless — but it’s a great vehicle for Carell, who proves he’s capable of more than just a feral scream as Naird does his best to deal with the chaos around him. Episodes often veer between comedy and drama. The budget-hearing episode also focuses on Naird’s struggle as a single parent, trying and failing to connect with his teenage daughter, and a play on Biosphere 2 in “Lunar Habitat” begins with Naird, acting pompously, sowing chaos among the other oddballs in the mock lunar habitat before finally opening up to them emotionally.

Carell navigates the balance beautifully, the crease in his brow equally proficient at conveying confusion or angst. The fact that Naird is occasionally called upon to scream doesn’t detract from the believability of his performance, because Space Force is classified as a comedy. Carell is certainly capable of doing drama — the kind of screaming he did in his comedic work requires a level of commitment that translates well to heavier work, whether it’s completely transforming himself à la Foxcatcher, or finding a subtler approach, as in Last Flag Flying. The problem is that the ingrained perception of him as Dunder Mifflin’s regional manager strains suspension of disbelief. Luckily, Space Force may help ease Michael Scott out of public consciousness, as Mark Naird’s sway between serious and silly makes him a perfect stepping stone between Carell’s comedic and dramatic works.

Space Force is now streaming on Netflix.

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