One of the best shows on television returns this week to Apple TV Plus — and I’m not talking about Ted Lasso. Or Pachinko or Severance. All of those are great, don’t get me wrong, but they’ve gotten plenty of attention and set up many a discussion.
Hardly anyone mentions For All Mankind.
The space drama is somehow still flying under the radar, despite glowing reviews and a general agreement (opens in new tab) that the season 2 finale was one of the best episodes of television of the past five years (and possibly all time). For All Mankind has been criminally overlooked at the Emmys.
The show deserves a lot more recognition, so here I am beating the drum ahead of the premiere of For All Mankind season 3 (tomorrow, Friday, June 10). Hop on board this rocket; you won’t regret it.
For All Mankind starts with an amazing premise
For All Mankind was co-created by Ronald D. Moore, who masterminded the Battlestar Galactica reboot (itself also one of the best-ever television shows) and Outlander. Like those series, For All Mankind combines multiple genres, including sci-fi, action, historical epic, workplace drama, romance and political intrigue.
The show begins with a fantastical and fantastic premise: What if the USSR beat the United States to the moon in 1969? In this alternate timeline, a Soviet cosmonaut is the first man to set foot on the moon, not Neil Armstrong.
Because of that, the space race never ends, as Americans increase their efforts to catch up — altering almost everything about the history that follows.
The alternate history is like a funhouse mirror
One of the the show’s strengths is how its alternate history reflects on ours. It’s like holding up a funhouse mirror to our world. Some things are the same, some are slightly off and others are completely different.
Within NASA itself, greater parity is ushered in much earlier. After the Soviets include a woman in a mission, the Americans follow suit by training women and minorities. Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger) becomes the first woman on the moon in 1971. In reality, Sally Ride didn’t reach orbit until 1983.
The high-profile role of women in the space program results in the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, which remains only a proposal in our universe.
The public’s interest in spacefaring never subsides, so NASA has the funding and support to build a permanent lunar base called Jamestown. In turn, NASA R&D helps escalate the pace of technological advancement. An opening season 3 montage reveals that the first iPhone precursors and HD televisions arrive in 1992.
In greater world culture, John Lennon survives and Prince Charles marries Camilla instead of Diana. Edward Kennedy is elected president for one term, succeeded by Ronald Reagan. But former astronaut Ellen Wilson (Jodi Balfour) is the Republican candidate who runs against Bill Clinton. Grunge still happens, as does the movie Rain Man.
Outlook: Space is the most fascinating frontier
All the stuff that happens on Earth is intriguing but For All Mankind really excels with its set pieces in space and on the moon. The season 2 finale featured jaw-dropping, stomach-churning sequences brought on by a feverish conflict between the Americans and Soviets. Astronauts Gordo and Tracy Stevens sacrificed their lives to prevent the meltdown of a nuclear reactor.
In lunar orbit, Ed (Joel Kinnaman) was one button away from blasting a Soviet spacecraft and triggering World War III. Fortunately, the crisis was averted when Danielle (Krys Marshall) disobeyed orders and docked with the Soyuz. Her handshake with a cosmonaut, broadcast around the world, inspired peace talks between Reagan and the Russians.
For All Mankind’s action scenes not only look great (Apple clearly pays top dollar for visual effects), but they really feel like they matter because the characters are so well-written. Their motivations, flaws, feelings and growth over the course of two seasons are what make those scenes so intense and gripping.
In season 3, the race shifts from the moon to Mars, which should be even more exciting. We know astronauts put boots on the red ground, but not whose. And the U.S. and USSR aren’t the only players; a visionary private entrepreneur has entered the chat. The three-way scramble raises the stakes even higher.
Maybe the Elon Musk-ness of it all will finally get For All Mankind some notice. Whatever it takes to get the show attention is fine with me! I hope my personal campaign wins over at least a few new viewers. [Editor’s note: after reading this, I’m convinced, and ready to dive into the first 20 hours of seasons 1 and 2 to give For All Mankind a chance.]