As the credits rolled on the third season finale of For All Mankind, I felt awful. But not because the show was awful. On the contrary. It was legitimately magnificent. I felt bad because I knew that I’d let a bunch of people down. Mainly, you, the reader, for not passionately screaming about just how excellent this show is much, much earlier.
When you write about film and TV for a living it’s impossible to cover everything. Thankfully, when you have a team as we do here on io9, many of us have different interests and it results in more diverse coverage. Even then though, with several of us loving and covering different things, excellent shows and films fall through the cracks. Apple TV+ series For All Mankind was one of those shows. We did review the first season of the show and gave it a glowing recommendation, but after that writer left the site, no one picked up the ball. Until I started watching it about two months ago.
In those two months, my wife and I watched the incredibly brilliant first season, then dove right into the bigger, messier, but ultimately even more rewarding second season. Then we caught up with the action-packed third season, which takes things to a whole other level entirely. That third season ended this past week and the show has, rightfully, been renewed for a fourth season. When that airs, we’ll be there, because you the people deserve it.
Since I started catching up on For All Mankind, I’ve told a lot of people about it and the reactions are always one of two things. Either “I know, it’s so amazing right?” or “Oh I’ve heard that’s good, what is it exactly?” The answer to the second question is very simple. Created by Ronald D. Moore (of Battlestar Galactica fame) as well as Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi, For All Mankind begins with a simple, brilliant premise: what if the United States lost the space race? In the first episode, we see the Soviet Union make it to the moon before the United States, and the story picks up with a dejected NASA standing in for a country questioning its own identity. As a nation, many Americans grow up with a superiority complex. We’re led to believe America is the best country in the world. But For All Mankind’s world irrefutably proves that false. We’re not the best. We just lost the biggest race in history. And then the show gets rolling.
That one simple twist changes history in innumerable ways, mainly driven by complacency and superiority giving way to innovation and motivation. On the show, the first manifestation of that is when NASA hires women as astronauts in the early 1970s. Seeing women in such a public place of power and status sure would change how America treats women, wouldn’t it? And things just snowball from there. More emphasis is put on science, technology, and not just reaching the moon but exploring it. In subsequent seasons, that grows and moves further through the cosmos. We won’t spoil anything major here, don’t worry.
Along the way, the show’s writing and acting elevate the already interesting material. We meet complex characters in relatable yet difficult situations, all of which continue to build momentum until each season ends with a jaw-dropping, spectacular finale. Truly, the first, second, and now third season finales of For All Mankind are some of the best TV episodes I’ve seen in years. Plus, the show adheres to a rather rigid structure. Season one takes place during the 1970s; there’s a jump at the end, and then we’re in the 1980s for season two, and similarly, the 1990s for season three. The showrunners have already confirmed season four will be in the 2000s and the final scene of this season gave us a brief tease of that, just like the seasons before it.
What those time restraints do is connect the audience to the show’s characters in unique, powerful ways most other shows couldn’t. We see characters develop over decades. A 30-year-old in the first season is in their 60s by season three. Their kids have now aged into adulthood. Family and friends have come, gone, and been lost. That’s a big thing too. For All Mankind has no problem killing major characters. Like, a lot. Plus, along the way, the show always, always has that subtext about how America could have been better—not perfect, but better—if we just changed a few things. One episode in season two shows a character in the 1980s with an electric car. The 1990s episodes have people communicating on video screens. Not everything is different, but it’s different enough to show important, noticeable progress, and let us know this is meant to be a fantasy.
The showrunners also never, ever shy away from complicated, controversial topics. Season three in particular deals with sexuality in ways that feel incredibly poignant to our reality now, but in an alternate reality 30 years ago. It always makes you think “How different would things be now if we dealt with this then?” And that’s the true gift of For All Mankind. It plants in you this idea of progress and possibility. It lives with you and makes you think.
Now that I’m a fan, I was lucky enough to be able to attend the show’s recent San Diego Comic-Con panel which included basically every single major actor on the show at the moment. It was truly awesome and the showrunners said that while they only have a fourth season approved now, their goal is to be able to show what our current reality, the 2020s, might look like in the For All Mankind reality. Which would be truly illuminating—to see our reality through the lens of For All Mankind would be like going to an alternate dimension, one where America strived for greatness in ways that gave us more advances sooner, and limitless possibilities.
So, For All Mankind, I apologize on behalf on io9. You deserved better. You’ll get better. But I’m not sure the show itself could get any better because it’s already one of the best on any TV service you can imagine. All three seasons of For All Mankind are on Apple TV+.
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