Before we go any further, please know: I give Moonhaven this rating under extreme duress.
To be fair, that’s more or less true for every other pre-air review I am obliged to append a rating to for Paste or any other outlet; I find rating systems, on balance, capricious and inconsistent (Editor’s Note: I don’t disagree). But where the difference of a few decimal points might have previously come down to how much sleep I’d gotten the night before or, I dunno, how much vitamin D I’d soaked up in advance of sending my editor a final number, nothing I’ve covered previously so openly defied numeric categorization as Peter Ocko’s Moonhaven.
Starring Emma MacDonald as a swaggering lunar cargo pilot, Dominic Monaghan as a guileless, Moon-born police detective, Amara Karan as the human envoy of a planet-sized AI tasked with saving humanity, and Joe Manganiello as her possibly sus, definitely weird heavy, Moonhaven has been marketed to critics as a “suspense thriller,” but would, in point of fact, be much better described as a hippy-dippy sci-fi murder mystery. With episodes whose rhythms are 98% the roll and bob of a gentle sea and 2% high octane gut-punch, a wardrobe whose colorways are pulled entirely from the table of Hook’s imaginary feast, and dialogue that includes lines like “A sound can be sweet-smile” and “Chill’s words were noggin-swirl and buzz,” the idea that even one element of the production might be summed up by a decimal rating, of all things, starts out laughable, and just diminishes over time. I mean, noggin-swirl and buzz! Delivered with all the sincerity and gravity of an earnest mentor sincerely trying to help a new friend through a genuine trauma! What’s a critic supposed to do with that?
I mean, I guess give Moohaven this 8.1, and then just do my best in what remains of this review to make a case that supports it. All the same, don’t try to invest more meaning in the number than it warrants. The dance-happy, nigh druidic denizens of Moonhaven certainly won’t be.
So, Moonhaven. Set to drop its first two episodes (of six total) on AMC+ on July 7, the remarkably brief series comes to us from Pushing Daisies and Lodge 49 producer Peter Ocko, with a non-writing EP assist from Reaper’s Deb Spera. A truly weird and whimsical pedigree! But where Pushing Daisies, Lodge 49, and Reaper all concerned themselves with uniquely terrestrial (if deeply existential) matters, Moonhaven asks what it might look like to free humanity, quite literally, from the shackles of “Mother Earth.”
That is to say, where Ocko’s and Spera’s previous projects lived quite happily on (or in the hellfire bowels of) planet Earth, Moonhaven takes its audience instead to the domed, 500-square mile lunar colony of the same name—which is, confusingly, also referred to as both “The Glade” and “Lune.” Set some hundred years after a terraforming AI named IO has been dropped into the Moon’s core and tasked with developing both the technology and the human culture to fix what Earthers have broken—which is, unsurprisingly, everything—Moonhaven opens just a few weeks in advance of what is set to be the lunar colony’s first ever foray across The Bridge, a trek which the company behind IO has promised the warring, desperate people of Earth will come with solutions to all their problems.
Unfortunately, just when the delicate trust between the two spheres of humanity can least afford to be tested, a young lunar woman named Chill (Nina Barker-Francis) is murdered by her lover in the middle of an Earth-lit forest.
Trained not to harass the living over the dead but rather to help them heal, the detectives of Moonhaven—Monaghan’s Paul and Kareem Hardison’s Arlo—find themselves at an impasse over how to approach an actual murder (tickled as they are at the idea of playing Sherlock), and impasse which only grows when said murder turns out to be just the first piece of a much larger, much more existentially terrifying conspiracy. It is this conspiracy that, by the end of the first episode, Earth-born pilot Bella Sway (MacDonald) finds herself mysteriously entangled in, and this conspiracy which ends up trapping her on the Moon for the remainder of the series, where her world-weary cynicism serves as a necessary foil to Paul’s (and the rest of the colonists’) bone-deep innocence.
How this conspiracy plays out is beyond the scope of AMC+’s spoiler embargo, but it’s also so odd and specific that any attempt to articulate it would make it sound goofier than it plays—and it plays extremely goofy. But to get lost in the tear-taste, chest-dark, giggle-headed goofiness of Moonhaven is, I think, to miss the point, which is that humanity is f**ed. I mean, nuclear pollution, war, famine, environmental annihilation—what believably passes for “humanity” on Earth so few centuries into our own future leaves the value of our salvation an open question.
And yet, raised for generations to pursue and embody that very salvation, the slice of humanity living and loving on the Moon are, as both we and our cynical audience surrogate Bella get repeatedly told, dedicated body and soul to that very goal. “They are us; we are them,” Paul insists, every time Bella evinces even the slightest skepticism of the dangerously ingenuous settlement’s sincerity. “They are us; we are them,” IO’s envoy Indira Mare (Karan) insists, every time she holos into a virtual summit with the desperate leaders of Earth, who are just as skeptical the Lunars will come through on bringing peace and prosperity back to a planet they had no hand in breaking. “They are us; we are them,” Paul’s water daughter* Elna (Martha Malone) tells Bella, before dancing her grief into catharsis.
*Adoptive, kind of, but also not… look, the people of Moonhaven really put the “commune” in “community.”
And yet, it doesn’t take a cynical pilot and ex-soldier self-isolating from her own PTSD to see that cultivating a society of adults who quite happily don’t know how to think for themselves is hardly the most foolproof plan to bring peace and renewal to a devastated, warring Earth. If the AI algorithm powering IO is only safe in the hands of “good” people, as Indira Mare’s backstory is so desperate for us to understand (to the extent, even, that it couldn’t survive basic contact with just one bad actor!) then it’s hard to believe either it or the slice of naïve humanity it has cultivated on the Moon could have any reasonable chance of “solving” the larger and more dangerously jaded swathe of humanity it’s had no intimate contact with.
This, presumably, is the question the series will answer in its final two episodes, which were not included in the tranche of screeners sent out to critics before this review’s filing deadline. Although given the cliffhanger Ayelet Zurer’s extremely suspect lunar botanist led us to at the end of the fourth episode, truly anything is possible in the next two!
Which brings us back to that almost arbitrary 8.1 rating. Often, the trick to writing a review is first determining what it is that a show is trying to do, and then determining if it lives up to its own standards. In the case of Moonhaven, giggle-headed as watching it might have made me (and Bella) from the jump, it’s clear that the goofiness is the goal. It’s a very weird show, something AMC+ has started to become a home for, and yet it is so singular in its voice that the goofiness is like an unexpectedly warm blanket. I was baffled by every episode; I enjoyed every episode; I wanted a hundred more.
Unfortunately, for the time being, I’ll have to settle for just two. But I look forward to both.
The first two episodes of Moonhaven land on AMC+ on Thursday, July 7. The remaining four will drop every Thursday thereafter.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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