There’s something endearing about the basics of “Moonbase 8,” in which three wannabe astronauts undergo a seemingly endless tryout in a NASA moon-base simulator in the desert of Arizona. The series opens on their 200th day of isolation in the lunar camp, three crackpot musketeers plus — at moments across the six-episode season — a few others. They’re sick and tired of one another, but they love one another, too, as they work through pretend missions on the base wearing the two-bit spacesuits NASA provided for them. They’re clearly incompetent but adorable in their sincerity, fantasizing obsessively about taking a giant step for mankind.
The Showtime series is a workplace comedy of sorts featuring three strong leads, Fred Armisen, John C. Reilly, and Tim Heidecker, whose chemistry is just right. Reilly is Cap, a helicopter pilot, and he works his big-guy-with-the-heart-of-a-kid charm. Heidecker is Rook, the highly religious father of 12, who doesn’t know how to read the room, sometimes creepily. And Armisen is Skip, the oh-so-serious son of a real astronaut whose daddy issues spill out all over the place. When the material rises to the occasion of their talents, “Moonbase 8” is the kind of comedy Steve Carell’s “Space Force” wanted to be.
But alas, the material. The writing has a flatness about it that, at first, seems like a comic tool intentionally trying to evoke a deadpan vibe — before it simply seems like a lack of imagination. The story setup is in place, the actors have their hapless characters down, they know how to work off one another, and then . . . 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . . nothing. That low-affect humor worked beautifully on Armisen’s “Portlandia,” but largely because it was delivered up in small batches. Here, in extended form, it drifts into longueurs and the point gets lost. It begins to feel as if the writers needed to add another layer or two of material onto their scripts before filming them — but couldn’t come up with anything.
Each of the guys is given a bit of a backstory, most of all Rook, who exchanges video notes with his pregnant-again wife and struggles not to give up his mission to bring Christianity to the rest of the universe. But those glimpses into their before lives don’t offer much fodder, and the episodic plots, which include a flu being passed around, a visit from three Tesla employees planning a trip to Mars, and local cow herders, are only a tad better. One of the joys of “The Last Man on Earth,” which shared some of the (now timely) themes of isolation, was the way it kept mining its premise for funny and at times poignant situations.
By the end of the season, which premieres Sunday at 11 p.m., I began to understand where “Moonbase 8” might be heading (assuming it is renewed), and I saw how it could become a richer and wittier comedy. At last, along with the resonant casting of M.C. Gainey from “Lost,” the story took a sharp turn in the right direction. But a season of warm-up is a lot to ask of viewers, many of whom will find their attention drifting into space long before the “Moonbase 8” men ever will.
Starring: Fred Armisen, John C. Reilly, Tim Heidecker. On: Showtime. Premieres Sunday at 11 p.m.