Why Apple TV+’s Space Drama Is The Best Show On TV

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It’s 1992, and the first space hotel in the solar system is about to open. A woman is running for president. The United States, the Soviet Union and a private corporation are in a three-way race to land astronauts on Mars.

At least, that’s what’s happening in Apple TV+’s stunning 1992 “For All Mankind” (returning Friday, streaming weekly on Fridays; ★★★★ of all fours) an alternative historical drama that imagines the space race of 1960s between the US and the USSR never ended. Now in its third season, the series shoots into a Mars-centric version of the 90s, where the timeline is different but still feels a bit like the 90s we know.

“Mankind” is the rare series that is thrilling, emotional, tense, dramatic, moving, exhilarating and infuriating at the same time. Some TV shows are good, some are great, and some still remind me why I became a critic in the first place. And in the never-ending flurry of mediocre series released weekly, “Humankind” stands out, a bright star (or moon or planet) among the replaceable rest.

Season three opens nearly a decade after season two, which was set in 1983, with most of the main characters wearing makeup and aged wigs that vary dramatically in quality but are fun. Karen Baldwin (Shantel VanSanten) is now a wealthy corporate executive after helping create a company that allows ordinary (but wealthy) people to travel into space. Her ex-husband Ed (Joel Kinnaman) waits to find out if he will lead NASA’s first manned mission to Mars, or if fellow veteran astronaut Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall) will.

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Elsewhere, former astronaut Ellen Wilson (Jodi Balfour) mounts a presidential campaign as a Republican, NASA chief Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt) is an unwitting asset to the KGB, and a new generation of engineers and astronauts begins to take over. NASA, including Karen and Ed’s adopted daughter Kelly (Cynthy Wu) and Margo’s protege Aleida Rosales (Coral Peña).

One of the great joys of Season 3 is the many payoffs of the narrative foundations laid by the writers in the first two years. Aleida, introduced as a child in the 1960s and 70s of the first season, is now a married mother and a senior engineer at NASA. And every little butterfly effect change from the real story that makes up the series’ alternate timeline has the potential for in-jokes and thought experiments. A montage that opens the new season, recapping the previous decade, reminds audiences that in this timeline, John Lennon was never murdered and the Beatles go on a reunion tour.

It’s not just the alternate history that makes “Humankind” great – although it’s so intricately thought out you could write books about it. What’s special about the show is the way the writers create scenes that are so skillfully written, so extremely intense that you might need to physically recover at the end of an episode. The series blends genres from disaster film to family drama, political thriller to comedy and science fiction with ease and logic. Each episode is a pleasant surprise.

Surprises aren’t limited to the usual TV tropes of death, pregnancy, and breakups (although the writers use them well). It’s not that “Mankind” killed off a huge number of characters, it’s that I believed they could or would at any time, and it would make sense in terms of plot and emotion rather than just being an excuse for gratuitous graphic violence.

There’s a flaw that’s hard to ignore, but it’s made up for by the grandeur of everything around you. The writers chose to take the less popular and more irritating storyline from season two, in which Karen had an affair with her best friend’s teenage son, and make it even more prominent in season three. That kid, Danny Stevens (Casey W. Johnson) is now an adult and astronaut, and wins the race for the most annoying TV character since Julie in “Friday Night Lights.”

But when the sum of a series is this good, it’s easy to dismiss a bad character (and that’s a tip for writers). “Mankind” is the most thoughtful and thoughtful show on TV, so subtle and exquisite you forget where and when you’re living and who the president is. It’s in a class of its own; it’s a new frontier of how good TV can be.

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