1992. The United States and the Soviet Union are preparing for a new phase in their rivalry: a race to get the first people onto the surface of Mars. But they are joined in the fight by Helios, an independent company run by a charismatic, visionary founder who wants in on the action. The three-horse race to Mars gets underway, but political expediency may compromise the integrity of the mission.
Fifteen years ago, Ronald D. Moore had just delivered the first two seasons of Battlestar Galactica, arguably the two greatest seasons of science fiction television in genre history. Brilliant vfx, fantastic acting and strong writing had combined to deliver a show that could very comfortably go head-to-head with any of the A-tier "prestige dramas" airing on the likes of HBO. Season 3 started the same way, but quickly fell of a cliff: imaginative writing and storylines had been replaced by lowest-common-denominator soap opera drama (such as an overreliance on love triangles), the formerly well-thought-out worldbuilding had developed cracks through which you could fly a Mercury-class battlestar, and contrivance and convenience had replaced intelligent plotting.
Unbelievably, the same thing has happened again. The first two seasons of Ronald D. Moore's For All Mankind are brilliant, with superb writing helping deliver fantastic performances and clever storytelling, all supported by some of the best vfx ever seen on the small screen. Season 1 was excellent; Season 2 was better, by a hair.
Season 3 starts off in exactly the same vein with what might be one of its strongest hours. Polaris is a fantastic, self-contained disaster movie with several regular characters stuck on the world's first orbital hotel, which soon develops a fault. Unfolding like a cross between Apollo 13 and one of the best episodes of Thunderbirds, the episode delivers fantastic spectacle rooted in interesting ideas. The next couple of episodes speculate intriguingly on the politics and science behind an increasingly dangerous space race as NASA, the Soviet Space Agency and Helios all compete to get to Mars first, rather than safely. We get one more great episode out of this, Happy Valley, as the race turns dangerous with one of the ships developing a fault, forcing the others to argue about who is going to go back and rescue them.
However, there is a ticking time bomb in For All Mankind that was planted back in Season 2 which explodes with full force in Season 3. Back in Season 2 we got a brief burst of tedious melodrama with a spectacularly unconvincing love triangle subplot that was mind-numbingly dull and unconvincing, but at least was dealt with briefly. In Season 3 this plot is inexplicably brought back, even more inexplicably given massive prominence and then turns into some kind of surreal satire of itself as the season goes on, resulting in deaths, mayhem and explosions in a manner so contrived and unbelievable as to verge on the comical. Episode after episode, you just hope this storyline and the character it centres on, the selfish and utterly unsympathetic Danny, will just end and instead the writers double down on it. It's like watching a football team that's heading to win the World Cup but the coach benches all of his star players to focus on the least-talented players ever to set foot on the pitch.
Although this storyline is the most egregious example of the declining in both writing and plotting this season, it is not the only victim. Another storyline about a character being compromised by Russia ends with them being whisked off to the Soviet Union, presumably by the same teleporter used to capture Jim Hopper in Stranger Things. In another storyline, a character is swept up by a cult-like group who think that NASA is hiding...something. Their bananas ideology is never really explained and their goals and objectives are obtuse, so it's kind of hard to invest in this story or what's going on, especially as the ramping-up of their status from "minor annoyance" to "massive national security threat" takes place so jarringly abruptly that it, again, verges on being silly rather than dramatic. The worldbuilding is also iffy: the United States now has limitless energy thanks to the advent of fusion power, meaning some of the economic issues the country is reported as facing should be non-existent instead of major problems. It's also questionable if the Soviet Union should still be around and if North Korea should be as advanced in this timeline as it appears to be.
Other problems are perhaps a bit too pedantic. This season mostly takes place in 1995, a full twenty-six years after Season 1, but very little effort has been made to make any of the characters look their age. Joel Kinnaman and Shantel VanSanten look amazing for playing people well into their sixties, whilst Nate Corddry is given some very unconvincing aging makeup (made worse by him having much better aging make up over on Amazon's excellent Paper Girls). It's one of those things you can forget about in a show that's otherwise firing on all cylinders, but here it accentuates the feeling of the wheels coming off the wagon whilst it's rolling downhill.
There are still flashes of greatness. The actors do their solid best with increasingly risible material and newcomer Lev Gorn has a great arc as the Soviet mission commander Grigory Kuznetsov, a hard-wired martinet who cracks (just slightly) to become an effective partner to Danielle Poole on the Mars mission. The political storyline revolving around Ellen Wilson (Jodi Balfour) becoming the first female President of the United States and facing a crisis when her sexuality (and her efforts to hide it) comes to the fore has a lot of legs to it, but is undercooked (and I'm not sure her resolution would really save her career). The show's energy and momentum lifts whenever Sonya Walger returns as Molly Cobb, making it a shame she's is so little of the season. Robert Bailey Jr. has a great subplot as Will Tyler, NASA's first openly gay astronaut, but again this is a story that's shunted to one side with almost indecent haste. There's also some excellent vfx, if not as flawlessly brilliant as in the first two seasons.
For All Mankind's third season (**½, but ****½ for Polaris and Happy Valley) has some individually great episodes, especially early on, and some great performances, effects and ideas. But it also has some agonisingly painful dumbness in its worldbuilding, its plotting and its characterisation that drags what was one a fantastic show down to mediocrity. The finale does resolve some of the stupider storylines, hopefully permanently, and we can hope that the already-commissioned Season 4 will be a return to form. The season is streaming worldwide right now on Apple TV+.
I'll never understand the accolades that this show got. The melodrama and soap opera aspects were right there from the beginning. Add to that Joel Kinnaman, whom I've never liked, and I could only watch seven episodes of the first season, but what I watched was horrendous, so I can't even imagine it getting worse.
Hah, this is a rare instance where you are more critical than I. FAM has been a little crazy since the first episode and has consistently become more so. I lost any suspension of disbelief with the duct tape spacesuits at the end of season 2. And if I was somehow cool with that we next saw the almost destroyed space station be just fine for a years-long Mars journey. But having been honestly, openly, and consistently crazy, I find it hard to blame the writers for continuing the theme in season 3 now. This over-the-top garbage is the show, and apparently fans like it. It is not at all my preference, but it sets up and pays off on its own terms. I very much agree, though, that the love triangle was just cringe and I fast forwarded all those scenes.
Thank god it's not just me that got more and more annoyed with season 3.
How can it go from being really well paced, with solid character interactions in season 1 and 2, and then in season 3 all commonsense drops off a cliff.
There were skips and things happen off screen that needed filling out.
I felt a real drop off in quality in this season.
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