'Away': TV Review

AWAY
Diyah Pera/Netflix
The intended uplift never quite takes off.
9/4/2020

Hilary Swank and Josh Charles star as a married couple separated by 30 million miles in Netflix's space-set soap.

“In space, no one can hear you scream” is so 20th century. In the near future of Away, Netflix’s lavish new space parenting soap, astronaut Emma Green (Hilary Swank) frets that her teenage daughter Alexis (Talitha Bateman) got a C on a test and sometimes doesn’t text her back for a whole day. Being on a spaceship doesn’t mean you can’t also helicopter parent.

That’s essentially the premise of Away, a 10-part drama that awkwardly marries the grandeur of space exploration to the banality of parenting challenges. (Alternate title for the series, especially once the obligatory Elton John karaoke scene kicks in: “Rocket Mom.”) It’s a difficult premise to pull off, one that asks viewers to care about, say, Alexis’ frankly enviable boy troubles when, 30 million miles away, life-and-death problems tirelessly plague Emma’s hopefully history-making, Mars-bound crew. But the result, most likely, is that you won’t.

Created by Andrew Hinderaker and executive-produced by Jason Katims, Matt Reeves, Adam Kassan and Ed Zwick (who directed the pilot), Away seems to be aimed at masochists (or sadists) who want to see a woman accomplish the impossible, but also never not feel guilty about sometimes being away from her family. The stakes are ratcheted up even higher for Emma when a medical catastrophe befalls her husband Matt (Josh Charles in the kind of eternally supportive heartthrob role he could ace in his sleep).

The writers intend, I think, to illustrate that a woman like Emma who doesn’t shy away from her emotions and sense of familial obligation can also be the kind of bold leader who finally takes humankind to Mars. But her domestic preoccupations are so ever-present (and dull) that it becomes too easy to side with her detractors among the crew.

For the quintet aboard the international spacecraft, their ever-deteriorating “tin can” is as much a prison as it is a testament to human achievement. As in Orange Is the New Black, most of the episodes alternate between the current timeline and character-illuminating flashbacks, though only the Hinderaker-penned third episode manages emotional resonance. Centered on the reserved Chinese chemist Lu (Vivian Wu) and her easily guessable but no-less-poignant secret, the episode also movingly explores the burden the responsibility of representation can become.

Lu’s natural ally — and Emma’s most obvious antagonist — is Misha (Mark Ivanir), a grizzled Russian engineer and space veteran whose estranged relationship with his daughter becomes a parental cautionary tale. Rounding out the crew are the Indian medic Ram (Ray Panthaki) and the Ghanaian-British botanist Kwesi (Ato Essandoh), whose backstories rival in depth the flavor profile of Tang. (Swank and the rest of the cast do the most they can with the weepy, formulaic material they’re given.)

The generic storylines and occasionally cringe-inducing dialogue feel like a particular waste given how capably the show captures the majesty of space. The production design, by David Sandefur, is stellar, with elegantly convincing sets that convey the not-a-wasted-design-element quality that a spacecraft should boast. In the early episodes, characters nearly bump into one another, unused to the cramped quarters of the ship. The crew constantly face new challenges — so much so that you start to wonder whether the show’s actually a dig at NASA’s competence — but it’s the smaller-scale issues that hit the balance between exoticism and relatability that the rest of the series has so much trouble locating. One crew member is afflicted with space blindness (a real thing!), another with peeling skin and all five grapple with the difficulty of downing shots of vodka in zero gravity.

But as the season chugs along, the team-building takes the form of crew members giving each other nonstop inspirational speeches. Away was designed as a kind of Friday Night Lights in space, but it has neither the detail of characterization nor the fine writing necessary for the uplift it so desperately wants to convey. The romance between Emma and Matt is the most fully realized relationship of the series, and yet it’s mottled by miscalculations, like having them lovingly call each other “shithead.” Coach Taylor and Tami Taylor have never felt so far away.

Cast: Hilary Swank, Josh Charles, Ato Essandoh, Mark Ivanir, Ray Panthaki, Vivian Wu, Talitha Bateman

Creator: Andrew Hinderaker

Showrunner: Jessica Goldberg

Premieres Friday, Sep. 4, on Netflix