AppleTV+’s For All Mankind feels like a show I invented just to entertain myself. If you told me I somehow manifested it into being, I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest.
That so many of my friends seem to feel the same way only underlines just how many people I know (and/or follow on social media) long for a world where things had gone differently. The show’s focus on a space race between the USA and USSR that never ended posits that such a space race would have led to a world where the dial was turned just a couple of clicks more toward utopianism. Nothing would have changed that much, but the show’s alternate history of the late 20th century is, nevertheless, a thrilling look at an Earth that can never be.
If you are super spoiler-averse, skip over just the next paragraph, because the reveal in the series’ opening sequence is a doozy, and I know many people may appreciate knowing nothing about it when they started watching.
For All Mankind’s first few minutes set its stakes. Viewers watch as footage of the moon landing plays on televisions around the world. This footage is well-known to us, among the most rebroadcast video in human history. But at the end of the opening sequence, we learn that there’s one key difference in the footage we’re watching: The Soviet Union made it to the moon first. That very different result in the space race very nearly happened in our reality, and For All Mankind uses it as a jumping-off point for a different version of the history we know well.
It’s safe to come back now, spoilerphobes!
But this tiny yet significant change to history isn’t the focus of For All Mankind. Instead, the series centers on a world where both the US and USSR funnel everything they have into the space race, in hopes of becoming the first country to establish a permanent base on the moon, then in hopes of becoming the first country to send people to live there more or less full time, then in hopes of becoming the first country to set foot on Mars.
What I love about For All Mankind is the way it simultaneously scratches two separate itches for me. First, I love stories set in space, and I especially love stories set in our own solar system, the space we know so very well. (Amazon Prime Video’s The Expanse also falls into this category.) Scenes where astronauts scramble to fix some disastrous malfunction with the slimmest margin of error are just inherently thrilling to me, and For All Mankind turns those screws relentlessly on its viewers.
Second, I love period pieces, especially period pieces set in 20th century America that dig into issues with privilege and power imbalances. A key conceit of For All Mankind is that as NASA starts sending more and more people into space, it needs to expand its pool of possible astronauts. As such, the agency begins allowing women to apply for the job, and it hires a handful of them.
Those women become the core of the show, and it’s no mistake that For All Mankind makes a quantum leap in quality in its third episode, when it turns its attention to them. But the series is also clear-eyed on how decreasing the amount of structural misogyny in American society won’t eliminate it entirely — and also how lessening one privilege doesn’t eliminate others, like racism and homophobia. In particular, For All Mankind sagely explores how Black astronaut Danielle Poole and lesbian astronaut Ellen Wilson cope with trying to work within a system where white people and straight people still have considerable advantages.
But lest you think this series is all about the ladies (though, honestly, for me, it mostly is), For All Mankind is one of the best shows I’ve seen in a while in depicting straight white guys struggling to manage their own emotional pain. Series lead Joel Kinnaman plays Ed Baldwin, a cocksure astronaut who finds himself facing trial after trial and slowly beginning to buckle under the pressure. Similarly, Michael Dorman’s work as Gordo Stevens provides a window into someone who’s pretending not to be dealing with PTSD — and floundering. These are stories we’ve seen on TV before, but they haven’t been handled this well in quite some time.
For All Mankind’s bona fides stem from many corners — terrific production design, visual effects that might be TV’s best, stellar performances from a beautifully chosen ensemble cast — but its overall quality can also be traced back to its showrunner, Ronald D. Moore.
One of the best science fiction writers in TV history, Moore was instrumental to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (the best Star Trek), and his magnum opus was the 2004–2009 reboot of Battlestar Galactica, which dragged contemporary political issues into far-off space. (Moore also developed Starz’s Outlander for TV and turned it into a terrific bodice-ripper for a while there.) For All Mankind offers a similar funhouse mirror version of our own reality in a very different way, and it’s great to see Moore heading back into the stars.
I’m starting to feel a tad evangelical about For All Mankind, in the vein of how I feel about The Americans or The Leftovers or Halt and Catch Fire, three of my favorite shows of all time. For All Mankind hasn’t reached the same level as those other three just yet, but give it a season or two more. I think it just might catch up. For now, it will have to content itself with being one of the best shows on TV at this moment.
For All Mankind is streaming on AppleTV+. Season one is available in full. New episodes of season two arrive every Friday through April 23.