Roush Review: A Cold War — on Earth & the Moon — in ‘For All Mankind’

Joel Kinnaman Wrenn Schmidt John Marshall Jones Jodi Balfour For All Mankind
Apple TV+

John Lennon lived. Prince Charles never married Di. And the space race pitting the U.S. against the Soviet Union extended well into the Reagan 1980s.

In the what-if alternate-history world of For All Mankind, a speculative and only occasionally exciting drama of exploration and conflict, most of the characters yearn to return to space. So do we.

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Hot Spot: Space Could Go Nuclear in 'For All Mankind' Season 2

An alternate history is the backdrop for this heart-pounding space race drama.

The fascinating but frustrating series’ 10-year time jump in the second season results in former astronauts riding desks instead of rockets, and the plot creaks with agonizing sluggishness over 10 very long episodes to propel these men — and, admirably, women — back into action. Apple TV+ is wise to roll out the episodes weekly, because the deliberate pace doesn’t encourage a binge.

But try not to scrub out with impatience as Mankind evolves into a NASA version of The West Wing, with scientists resisting a military takeover of their operations when Cold War nuclear tensions escalate on Earth and the Moon. Because much like a delayed liftoff, it’s worth the wait when cool things happen — such as a fun twist on the joint Apollo-Soyuz “handshake in space” mission.

With its mix of real and fictional characters and its cleverly doctored footage, this is hardly your typical workplace show. And thankfully, we’re in good company even when grounded in tedious soap-opera detours.

Joel Kinnaman and Michael Dorman are excellent as Ed and Gordo, flyboys haunted by their tragic Season 1 tour of duty as pioneers at the original Jamestown moon base, which has expanded impressively over the last decade. (The claustrophobic first base now serves as the sprawling structure’s galley.) Ed has rededicated himself as a family man while running NASA’s astronaut program, and Gordo has gone to seed, giving speeches to Shriners that ring hollow as he downs cocktails to erase memories of his mental breakdown.

For All Mankind Season 2

Apple TV+

The women are just as if not more impressive: Sarah Jones as celebrity astronaut Tracy, Gordo’s ex (flirting with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show); Sonya Walger as Molly, the tough warrior queen of female pilots; Krys Marshall as Danielle, the Black vet from Jamestown who refuses to stay in the background; Jodi Balfour as Ellen, a closeted hero torn between duty and love; and back at Mission Control, Wrenn Schmidt as Margo, NASA’s determined director, and Coral Peña as Aleida, her gifted but volatile protégée. So many subplots, which too often feel like wasted time.

The season starts and ends on a strong note, and by the nail-biting climax, with multiple crises edging the planets to the brink of a cataclysmic war, For All Mankind lives up to its thrilling potential.

With Mars no doubt in its trajectory for a third season — the series has already been renewed — let’s just hope it gets there quicker.

For All Mankind, Season 2 Premiere, Friday, February 19, Apple TV+