This is the TV series, not the fine 1989 documentary film. Season Three just ended, and I finally caught up, watching all three seasons over the course of a month or so. I'd skipped it before ... no reason, just too much to watch. But critics have come around on it (the Metascores are 65 for S1, 75 for S2, and 84 for S3), and it's co-created by my fave Ronald D. Moore of Battlestar Galactica and Outlander fame ( the other creators are Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi, with Maril Davis as executive producer). It's on Apple TV+. I knew I'd get around to it ... I didn't know how much I would love it.
Do I need spoiler alerts for a show that already has three seasons and thirty episodes? It's no real spoiler to say that For All Mankind is an alternate-history sci-fi drama, but once I get into the alternate in that history, I'm giving things away. The story begins in 1969, as the USA and USSR race to be the first to land a human on the moon. The initial trailer gives away the biggest alternate that sets off the story, and I've given you all the warning you're going to get, since I can't believe anyone reading this doesn't already know: the Soviets get to the moon first.
Many of the subsequent alternates to our own history are interesting, but if alt-history was all the show offered, it wouldn't be much to watch. Some vague non-spoilers: people from our world live or die at different times than in "real life", and politics are different (Nixon is President when the show begins, Reagan gets two terms, Clinton runs as the Democratic nominee in 1992, but other presidents differ from our own). One thing I wish were different ... in the For All Mankind universe, Kirk Gibson still hits that homer against Dennis Eckersley.
The narrative is driven by the show's alt-history, and it spans a long period (the season that just ended finished in 2003). But what makes For All Mankind more than just another sci-fi show is the characters, how they are written and how they are portrayed by an excellent cast. A few of the characters are real people, especially people from the space program: Deke Slayton, Wernher von Braun, Gene Kranz. Some of the astronauts have parts that amount to cameos ... people like Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and John Glenn are portrayed by actors. And the show effectively uses archive footage (and what appears to be some excellent voice mimics) to work the likes of Nixon and Reagan and Clinton and even John Lennon into the mix. The main characters are played by a lot of "that guys" you will recognize, people like Joel Kinnaman, Michael Dorman, Jodi Balfour, Sonya Walger, and Wrenn Schmidt. Everyone does a stellar job ... it took me almost three seasons to realize this, I just accepted the actors as their characters, and it took watching Dorman in Patriot for me to understand these folks were acting.
For All Mankind isn't perfect, although a lot of the problems come from overambition. Just the fact that they have gone forward almost 35 years in three seasons leads to some unfortunate messes ... the aging makeup on the actors isn't always believable, and too many characters are left without the slow, contextual buildup that would help us understand their actions. But ultimately, the worst part about the Season 3 finale is that I have to wait a year to watch Season 4. The perils of binging.