For All Mankind - Season 1
Look all around you. Everywhere you turn, there’s always a new streaming service that cropped up to partake in the streaming wars. What started off as revolutionary with Netflix and its own line of fictional entertainment at a time when it was still just a video-rental service now blossomed into another branch of storytelling for both TV and film. Soon, Amazon Prime came into the picture, as did Hulu, then Apple TV+, and then Disney+, with even more to follow.
Well, for this review, I’m going to talk about For All Mankind, the show that, quite frankly, drew me into Apple TV+.
It was reported that the lineup of shows Apple TV+ started with when it launched on November 1, 2019 was, to say the least, a mixed bag. Shows like “See” started off with more unintended laughs than it did with interested viewers. However, the two shows that started off with the most glowing of first-hand critiques were Dickinson and, to my delight, For All Mankind.
And after finishing up all of season one… yep, it is off to a very solid, very promising start.
For starters, I absolutely adored the premise.
In the show, when the Space Race was still underway, everything changed when the Soviet Union was the one to have launched the first man on the moon instead of USA. This shook USA to the core, no doubt about it, as they felt as if they didn’t succeed in living up to President Kennedy‘s promise to land one of their own men on the moon. But they still held onto the determination to beat the Soviet Union at its own game in space travel by any means necessary. This included establishing female astronauts for participation in the Apollo programs, finding ice on the moon before the Soviets can reach it first, and establishing a lunar base they called Jamestown.
Going into this, I was developing an interest on the whole 'alternate universe' theme because of its potential to remind its viewers of the pratfalls, shortcomings, and injustices we all managed to keep from becoming a reality. And when I read the premise of For All Mankind, I sort of expected the same thing to happen through this show.
Even though I didn’t really see “See”, I understood well enough that it didn’t manage to live up to its premise. Thankfully, I feel like For All Mankind did.
In fact, the alternate history approach the show took on the Space Race felt more unique. Instead of making us feel happy we managed to be the first to land on the Moon, it instead showed that there was more that we could’ve done in the Space Race, and that it could have gone far beyond just landing on the Moon. Some of what it portrayed in its demonstrations did feel a little far-fetched, I’ll admit, and yet, they all added up to a wobbly yet cohesive story of how far we would have been willing to go to win the Space Race.
The America in this show was always confident and, at some point or another, knew how to get back up on its feet and stand its ground in the face of one-upmanship. And I really admire that. Isn’t that the kind of America we want to prove ourselves of being?
While my mind is still on the country's sense of confidence, one of the other reasons this show was so interesting, besides its premise, was the characters.
Let's start with the Baldwin family. Ed, the husband, has been hopeful as ever to become commander of one of the then-upcoming Apollo programs. He was easy to identify with not just because of the Soviet Union's victory, but because of a certain mishap from his past. Karen, his wife, simply wished the best for Ed, until both certain decisions made by NASA and her family situations caused her to rethink her position as the family housewife. And Shane, their son, started to get into acts of borderline criminality and often caused discord among his family.
Gordo Stevens was a pretty lively guy and a good friend of Ed's, but started experiencing bad symptoms after he started hanging out with other women and especially during one of his eventual trips to the Moon. Tracy Stevens, his wife, was pretty confident in the skills she acquired from NASA and, once she became an astronaut, wanted to prove her worth as such to NASA as well as to Gordo.
Deke Slayton was a pretty tough guy and came across as pretty brash at times. However, he still had faith in the success of the Apollo programs and in his country's Space Race pursuits. So, even if he didn't agree with all the decisions being made, he made sure to stick to it, no matter what.
Margo Madison, being the only female scientist in the Apollo Mission Control Room, was desperate to prove her worth to her fellow NASA coworkers, even compared to Tracy. It was made even more challenging to pull off after her long time friend and expert scientist, Wernher von Braun, was exposed as having worked with Nazis in the past and was incarcerated on the spot.
Aleida Rosales had to readjust her lifestyles after her family migrated to America from Mexico. Besides her father working in NASA as a janitor, Aleida started to establish her potential among the NASA group with incredible math skills that had the potential to play a role in the Space Programs.
Ellen Waverly, despite being well-established in NASA, especially after she, too, became an astronaut, went through some personal trauma after she got together with her secret girlfriend, local barmaid Pam Horton. So, she and her other close friend, Larry Wilson, who was also gay, agreed to be husband and wife so they both would've kept their homosexuality under wraps.
Molly Cobb, the first female astronaut to be selected for the Space Program, was a sassy woman who was committed to accomplishing things her way, while her husband, Wayne, underwent some unhealthy habits out of worry for his wife's safety in her first mission.
Knowing the time period the show was set in despite its alternate historical aspects as I watched it, I expected it to establish some major social tensions among certain diversities as the show went on. And all in all, it did a good job of focusing on what was most important in the context of the story.
Ellen's story, for example, was a nice reflection on the homophobia America expressed in the mid-20th century. Ellen, despite loving Pam, knew that since she had the potential to prove herself as a worthy astronaut in the eyes of NASA, this would've put her career and reputation in jeopardy if the word spread out about her sexuality.
The show also expressed hints of the county's racism toward African-Americans through Astronaut Danielle Poole and her husband, Clayton. Danielle was subject to comments by her peers as the quote-on-quote "token black girl" in the Space Programs, and Clayton had to put up with semi-racist remarks from Gordo during a fight between them.
The other social debate that cropped up in the show that was the most discussed about, of course, was the idea of women participating in the Apollo Missions.
One of my favorite episodes of Season 1 was "Nixon's Women", where NASA decided to play its hand in promoting women to be astronauts in the Space Program. It jumpstarted a series of debates, especially by Deke and Karen, concerning what women could've brought to the Space Program, and how, whether for political reasons or not, the newly-elected ladies deserved a shot to play a role in the evolution of space travel.
I am also starting to develop a liking to episodes 7-8 of Season 1, where the actions of Shane, and then by Karen, started to take its toll. Without giving anything away, the results that unfolded from these chaotic ventures were very intense and tragic, and I found myself empathizing with all of them.
And finally, one of my favorite moments from the show was when Karen, at her most stressed, went to see Molly's husband, Wayne, and, after lambasting him for using drugs, eventually gave in and had some of his drugs herself. Not only was this a turning point for Karen, but Wayne's lifestyle was a nice metaphor for the then-rising Hippie movement.
If I had to evaluate the season based on what I really liked about the show so far, its first half was pretty hit and miss, whereas the last half became more intriguing.
Speaking of hit and miss, there were a few things that felt a bit confusing.
For example, the first time I saw Aleida and her family as they underwent their migration, it did become a little interesting, but I never understood what connections they had with the events going on in NASA outside of watching the monumental landing on the Moon by the Soviet cosmonaut. Later on, I found out, like I said, about how the father worked as a janitor and, later, about Aleida developing a talent for mathematics. Only then did the connection start to make more sense.
In fact, wouldn't this have led Aleida to establish connections with the Hidden Figures themselves? You know, Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson? For a show that was breaking new ground with an alternate history concerning the Space Race that completely changed the social landscape, I'm surprised they forgot to mention them. Especially since Danielle, an African-American lady, became an astronaut and was generally respected as such. Was this a missed opportunity, or are the creators of the show saving this for Season 2? Who knows until then.
Another part of her story that left me scratching my head, while still an interesting commentary on immigration in the USA, was its connection to the time period. Was immigration a hot topic in America back in the late 60s, early 70s, like it is today, or was it more or less a commentary on today's debates concerning immigration in America?
Also, while I still like the plot of "Nixon's Women", the plot concerning it was brought into fruition in light of the Soviet Union sending one of its own women on the Moon first at the end of the episode prior. That got me thinking, was the USSR less restrictive on social gender norms at the time than the USA was? I'm no space or history fanatic, but I usually don't overlook certain details like this if its historical accuracy should be brought into question.
The show, while it does a great job exploring its premise throughout its run, also introduced some space elements and pursuits that, once again, were a bit of a stretch to me. For example, one of USA's missions after landing some of its own men and women on the Moon was to find ice after satellite scans picked up its presence there. They believed that if they found it before the Soviets did, it could be useful for their adventures in space beyond the Moon.
Yeah...that's a pretty wild claim for this show to make, especially since the claim of there being ice on the Moon, in and of itself, didn't crop up until several years ago in the early 21st century. And so far, as of this writing, we still haven't found it yet. Was it just because we were not looking hard enough once our men were on the Moon? I'd like to think that that's the case, but we'll leave that up to NASA itself to find that out for the time being.
On the other hand, however, this did bring me back to what made this show so unique: how far are we willing to go for space exploration, even if it's for political means or for political victory?
In the process, it made me see For All Mankind a little differently in terms of its themes. Unlike the average alternate history story, where it would have shown us what disasters may have brewed by now if we didn't do our part, For All Mankind shows us what we could have achieved or, if Lady Luck is in our favor, what we have yet to achieve.
There's a certain respectability to its approach on its premise that I found fascinating, and for what it started off with, it painted a very creative portrait of early-60's/70's America in such a way that it was familiar and yet unpredictable at the same time. Will it eventually reach the creative heights of such classic space stories as Apollo 13, The Right Stuff, or Hidden Figures? Time will tell.
Until then, I have faith in this show's daring ventures, and I can't wait to see just how far to the stars it will go.
My Rating: B+