As an actor, Steve Carell has shown remarkable elasticity.
He can be an outright dope, like the barely articulate Brick Tamland of “Anchorman,” or a lovable loser, like Michael Scott, his breakthrough role on “The Office.” Occasionally, he has been a sheer terror, like John E. du Pont, the murderous scion he played in “Foxcatcher.” They are characters that reveal almost nothing about the actor.
So the choices Carell made when he was helping to design his lead character in “Space Force,” his new Netflix comedy series, would seem to be telling. Given the opportunity to build a role from the ground up, he cast himself as Gen. Mark Naird, a tightly wound but highly capable military leader charged with creating a new branch of the U.S. armed forces.
Carell created “Space Force” with Greg Daniels, the showrunner of “The Office,” and it features Carell in his first ongoing TV comedy role since he left that NBC series in 2011.
But it might not be the show viewers expect. It’s not a mockumentary and it’s not really a political satire. Carell, whose father fought in World War II, wants the show to have respect for the military and to find its humor in the competing demands of life and work.
But “We didn’t want to make the space version of ‘The Office,’ ” Carell said, “which is funny, because as soon as it was announced, that’s what everybody started calling it.”
Almost a decade after his exit from the Dunder Mifflin Paper Co., Carell, an Oscar nominee for “Foxcatcher” (2014), had been on a run of dramatic and darkly comic roles: a father grappling with a drug-addicted son in “Beautiful Boy”; a disgraced television host on “The Morning Show”; Donald Rumsfeld in the Dick Cheney biopic “Vice.”
As he planned his next round of work, Carell, 57, said, “I just wanted to do something funny and silly and lighthearted. A straight-ahead comedy.”
Netflix, meanwhile, had seen “The Office” become a pillar of its library and was eager to enlist Carell in a new series. About two years ago, Netflix approached him with little more than a premise — a fictional take on the efforts to establish an interstellar military wing — but it was enough to spark his interest. “We just went out on a whim,” he said.
To build the show, Carell wanted to re-team with Daniels, a creator of “King of the Hill” and “Parks and Recreation,” who had successfully adapted the British cringe comedy “The Office” into its kinder, more heartfelt U.S. incarnation.
The endurance of “The Office” also means that Carell and Daniels will get asked about it when they talk publicly about “Space Force.” But Naird, they said, isn’t Carell’s attempt to escape his association with his best-known character.
“Michael Scott is not a millstone around his neck,” Daniels said. “He’s a point of pride.”
He added, “Michael Scott was a very mediocre leader. All he cared about was being liked.” Naird, by contrast, he said, “is a guy who’s had a lot of success, has a family, is a great leader and is very inflexible.”
The spirits of the military satires “Dr. Strangelove,” “M*A*S*H*” and “Catch-22” are also palpable in “Space Force,” which is populated with a variety of bureaucratic foils for Naird, including an inscrutable chief scientist (John Malkovich) and a bullying military rival (Noah Emmerich), plus a wife (Lisa Kudrow) and daughter (Diana Silvers) who complicate his life at home.
The cast also features Fred Willard, who died on May 15, as Naird’s father. In a tweet, Carell said that Willard “was the funniest person that I’ve ever worked with.”
Malkovich, making a rare foray into comedy, said he could see Carell striving to meet a personal standard of perfection in their scenes together.
“He wants to get it really right,” Malkovich said. “I always had the feeling he maybe hears something and/or feels something, some secret tone or a hieroglyphic that he’s trying to get. I don’t think it’s something, necessarily, that I or anybody else would know.”