When Apple TV+ bowed in November of 2019 there was plenty of buzz about its original lineup of shows. The Morning Show—headlined by Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon—grabbed a lot of headlines, while Jason Momoa’s See and Dickinson, starring Hailee Steinfeld got people buzzing. But quietly it was the space drama For All Mankind that was the best of them all.
The series picks up in 1969 as the first astronaut is about to land on the moon, but there’s a twist. Instead of Neil Armstrong and the Americans it’s the Russians that reach the moon first. From there, the series spins forward, crafting its own version of history similar to reality but just enough different to allow them to put their own spin on things.
That twist allowed the show to build the drama around characters of its own creation, led by astronauts Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) and Gordo Stevens (Michael Dornan). That extended to their families, Ed’s wife Karen (Shantel VanSanten) and Gordo’s wife Tracy (Sarah Jones), a pilot who becomes an astronaut herself. In fact, females in the space race were a hallmark of the series, including female astronauts Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger), Ellen Wilson (Jodi Balfour) and Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall), as well as the mission commander Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt).
The first season, running 10 episodes, traveled to the Moon, where the Americans eventually landed and built a base. But it was richly moving thanks to the personal drama, especially the stories around Ed Baldwin and Gordo Stevens. The first season drew to a conclusion in December of 2019 and was one of the strongest entries that year. But, like other series, its second season was delayed by the pandemic. It would be 14 months before the second season debuted on Apple TV+ in February of 2021.
Like with its first season, For All Mankind was overshadowed by higher profile series. While many were latched on to the Marvel series on Disney+, For All Mankind rolled out a 10-episode run that was nothing short of a masterpiece.
The season picks up in the 1980s, where Ronald Reagan is President and tension with Russia has never been higher. That includes on the Moon, where the two Cold War Super Powers are vying for territory. Meanwhile Ed and Gordo have been grounded, working day jobs for NASA without thought of returning to space in a decade. Molly and Ellen begin the season in space, but soon find themselves in new roles back on Earth.
Tracy, meanwhile, is a star who’s bound for space, while Ed and Gordo eventually make their way back on to missions bound for the Moon. Over all of it sits the threat of war, including armed conflict on the Moon. All that becomes more of a reality as both nations find a way to send armed soldiers into space.
The series—created by Ronald D. Moore, Ben Nedivi and Matt Wolpert—knows how to build beautiful drama. While the seasons both start slowly, the build as they set the pieces in motion, laying the audience bare emotionally by the end of each arc. That was certainly true of this second season, which builds into these characters and brings the tension to a boil over a fantastic closing arc.
What I also appreciate about the series is the way it captures the beauty and wonder of space. That begins early in the first episode, with shots on the moon that are simply breathtaking. We used to dream as a nation, and we used to reach for the stars. For All Mankind remembers that and wants to help us remember that, too. It treats advances in space with wonder, awe and an urgency that makes you wish you were watching history play out.
But what puts it over-the-top is the way it’s able to craft characters and stories that pull at your heartstrings. The series is blessed with an immensely talented cast. Kinnaman, VanSanten, Walger, Schmidt, Balfour and Marshall are all featured and all deliver fine performances. But the season is really built around Dornan’s Gordo and Jones’ Tracy. Their arcs are beautifully crafted and the payoff for their season-long story, which occurs in the fantastic season finale The Grey, left me in a puddle.
The second season finale debuted on April 23, and all 10 episodes of the second season and 20 episodes of the series so far are available to stream on Apple TV+. It’s a beautifully shot and wonderfully written series that delivered one of the finest seasons of television in 2021. If you haven’t seen it, make a point to check out For All Mankind.
Matthew Fox is a graduate of the Radio, Television and Film program at Biola University, and a giant nerd. He spends his free time watching movies, TV, and obsessing about football. He is a member of the FSWA. You can find him @knighthawk7734 on Twitter and as co-host of the Fantasy Football Roundtable Podcast.