It’s 1992, and the solar system’s first space hotel is about to open. A woman is running for president. The United States, the Soviet Union and a private corporation are in a three-way race to land astronauts on Mars.
At least, that’s what’s happening in the 1992 of Apple TV + ‘s stunning “For All Mankind” (returning Friday, streaming weekly streaming Fridays; ★★★★ out of four) an alternate history drama that imagines the 1960s space race between the US and the USSR never ended. Now in its third season, the series rockets to a Mars-centric version of the 1990s where the timeline is different but still feels a bit like the ’90s we know.
“Mankind” is the rare series that’s exciting, emotional, tense, dramatic, heartbreaking, elating and infuriating all at once. Some TV shows are good, some are great, and still others remind me why I became a critic in the first place. And in the endless barrage of mediocre series pushed out weekly, “Mankind” stands out, a shining star (or moon or planet) among the replaceable rest.
Season 3 opens nearly a decade after the second season, which was set in 1983, with most of the main characters donning some aging makeup and wigs that vary drastically in quality but are fun nonetheless. Karen Baldwin (Shantel VanSanten) is now a rich corporate executive after she helped create a company that lets ordinary (but wealthy) people travel to space. Her ex-husband Ed (Joel Kinnaman) waits to hear if he will lead NASA’s first manned mission to Mars, or if his fellow veteran astronaut Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall) will instead.
More:The best TV shows of 2021, from ‘For All Mankind’ to ‘Ted Lasso’ to ‘Squid Game’
Elsewhere, former astronaut Ellen Wilson (Jodi Balfour) mounts a presidential campaign as a Republican, NASA chief Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt) is an unwitting asset for the KGB, and a new generation of engineers and astronauts begins to take over NASA, including Karen and Ed’s adopted daughter Kelly (Cynthy Wu) and Margo’s protege, Aleida Rosales (Coral Peña).
One of the big joys of Season 3 is the many payoffs from the storytelling groundwork laid by the writers in the first two years. Aleida, introduced as a child in the 1960s and 70s of the first season, is now a married mother and senior engineer at NASA. And each little butterfly-effect change from real history that makes up the alternate timeline of the series has the potential for inside jokes and thought experiments. A montage that opens the new season, recapping the previous decade, reminds us the audience that in this timeline, John Lennon was never assassinated and the Beatles get to have a reunion tour.
It’s not just the alternate history that makes “Mankind” great – although it is so intricately thought out you could write textbooks about it. What’s special about the series is the way the writers craft scenes that are so expertly written, so exceedingly intense that you might need to physically recover at the end of an episode. The series mixes genres, from disaster movie to family drama, political thriller to comedy and science fiction with ease and logic. Each episode is a gratifying surprise.
The surprises aren’t confined to TV’s usual tropes of death, pregnancies and breakups (although the writers deploy them well). It’s not that “Mankind” killed off a huge number of characters, it’s that I believed they could or would at any moment, and it would make sense in terms of plot and emotion, rather than just be an excuse for graphic, gratuitous violence.
There is one flaw that’s hard to overlook but is offset by the greatness of everything around it. The writers chose to take the least popular and most vexing storyline from Season 2, in which Karen had an affair with the teenage son of her best friend, and make it even more prominent in Season 3. That kid, Danny Stevens (Casey W. Johnson) is now an adult and astronaut, and winning the race for the most annoying TV character since Julie on “Friday Night Lights.”
But when the sum of a series is so good, it’s easy to write off one bad character (and that’s a hint to the writers). “Mankind” is the most thoughtful and thought-out show on TV, so nuanced and exquisite that you forget where and when you’re living and who’s president. It’s in a class all its own; it’s a new frontier of just how good TV can be.
More:The 6 new TV shows you need to watch this summer, including ‘Ms. Marvel ‘