One of the first questions to come to mind when watching Final Space, the new sci-fi animated comedy on TBS from executive producer Conan O’Brien, is: Just who is this show supposed to be for? It’s a good question, as the series, created by Olan Rogers, is a curious mishmash of science fiction tropes and elements familiar to other animated series, like The Simpsons and, more obviously, Futurama. Case in point: the series’ main character, Gary, is another staggeringly dimwitted dude who is prone to making incredibly poor life decisions that inevitably send him tumbling down a path to self-actualization (maybe). In essence, he’s an amalgam of Homer Simpson and Fry, but one who’s draped himself in the unearned swagger of a man aching to be Han Solo.
As a lead character, Gary is a lot like Final Space itself: overly familiar but not necessarily bad. His antics fit into the tried-and-true muttonhead-with-a-heart-of-gold model, in which a guy who is basically born to lose begins failing upward once he’s hit rock bottom. That occurs early on when Gary, posing as a pilot for the series’ more militarized version of Star Trek’s Federation, inadvertently blows up a small fleet of spaceships in an impetuous and ill-advised attempt to pick up on Quinn (Tika Sumpter), a brilliant space cadet. The end result of Gary’s actions find him serving out a prison sentence aboard a space vessel controlled by an overbearing AI named HUE (Tom Kenny) and populated with seemingly countless blank-faced robots and one annoying helper droid (or Insanity Avoidance Companion) named KVN that’s voiced by Fred Armisen.
Well into his prison term, a desperately lonely Gary makes the acquaintance of an adorable green blob he dubs Mooncake, a name that has a connection to a traumatic moment from his childhood. As it turns out, Mooncake is what’s known as a planet killer — he’s basically a living weapon of mass destruction wrapped up in a cuddly toy you’d win playing the claw game at an arcade. Gary immediately becomes attached to the little guy and soon finds out that an intergalactic despot with the very original and interesting name of Lord Commander (David Tennant) is searching for Mooncake, putting Gary, HUE, and KVN on a collision course with a group of mercenaries tasked with putting the living weapon in the villain’s hands.
As far as setups go, the one Final Space is begins with is the result of something television should have long grown out of doing. The tired cliche of male protagonists who become fixated on women they don’t know and who aren’t interested in them will induce more than a few eye-rolls early on. Final Space works around this with a reveal at the end of the second episode (the first two episodes are available to stream now on the TBS app), when it becomes clear Quinn is the most capable character in the story. She finds herself in a position of being ignored, even though she has evidence there’s a tear in spacetime that is a threat to the entire universe. This leads to a surprising twist involving Quinn and essentially turning Gary’s misadventures into destiny.
The series takes the first two episodes to introduce Gary and lay the groundwork for the character, revealing that underneath all the puffed up bravado there’s just a lonely guy aching to have a connection with the people around him. Those feelings are magnified by his being isolated with a bunch of unfeeling (or idiotic) robots, so running into Mooncake, and later, a humanoid cat and mercenary named Avocato (Coty Galloway) — who harbors his own personal reasons for working for Lord Commander — essentially brings out the one thing Gary has going for him: fierce, almost pig-headed loyalty to those he cares about… even if he just met them.
TBS making the first two episodes available to stream ahead of the premiere is smart. That’s about all the time it’s going to take to decide whether you’re in or out. Final Space is one of those shows where the barrier to entry is fairly low. That’s further helped out by all the boxes it checks by virtue of being an adult animated series that’s also a science fiction space opera, and a very silly comedy. There’s potentially something here for everyone as long as what everyone is looking for is also some low-brow escapism featuring a main character who seems partially designed to test the viewers’ patience.
But there is also an underlying warmth to the show that’s hard to overlook. To its credit, Final Space wants you to feel something about its characters, even if its annoyance at first. It’s rare that a series would start off by actively encouraging its viewers to find the lead character irritating, only to hopefully warm up to him after a few episodes. It’s a gamble that essentially puts the audience in the shoes of the supporting cast, making Gary’s admittedly (and necessarily) quick turnaround one that feels more earned. Most shows would insist that a guy like Gary is really awesome and everyone else around him needs to get with the program. It’s the opposite here, as Gary’s loneliness puts him in a position of having to change if he’s going to maintain the relationships he’s stumbled onto and so desperately needs.
It’s easy to see how the mileage viewers get from the show’s brand of comedy will vary wildly, but that’s okay, as there may be more common ground to be had in Quinn’s save-the-galaxy mission, and the twist at the end of the second episode. In this era of Peak TV, it’s difficult to know exactly why Final Space was given a shot at primetime, but here we are. And while the series doesn’t necessarily offer up a solid explanation as to why, it does offer enough laughs and surprising warmth to earn itself some points and maybe keep a few people watching.
Final Space continues next Monday with ‘Chapter Three’ @10:30pm on TBS.
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