'The First': TV Review

This trek spends more time on Earth than in the stars.
9/14/2018

Beau Willimon's Hulu drama is a Sean Penn-driven series about a Mars expedition, but it's better to approach it as an ensemble piece about the human cost of scientific advancement.

Like mustaches and movie musicals, the popularity of Mars as an onscreen destination waxes and wanes. In the early 2000s, a wave crested with Mission to Mars, Red Planet and Ghost of Mars. After a long fallow period, there's been a renaissance of interplanetary tourism with The Martian, Nat Geo's blandly titled Mars and Hulu's new drama The First.

The main thing setting apart Beau Willimon's eight-episode take on space exploration is that it doesn't actually get to Mars. That might sound like a spoiler or a criticism, but it's a matter of establishing perspective and expectations. Going into The First anticipating fast-moving thrills and big-budget adventure is almost certainly a recipe for disappointment. Meet the show on its own terms by knowing that it's a drama about fierce dedication and an uncomfortable intersection of altruism and selfishness. The series has its eyes on the heavens but its feet on the ground.

Admirably, Hulu isn't advertising The First as some sort of blockbuster, though trailers don't lack for footage of igniting rockets — taken mostly from the first half of the pilot.

Set in a not-too-distant future of slightly improved VR technology, expanded automation and few other tangible details, The First begins on the brink of the first manned journey to Mars, a launch orchestrated by Laz Ingram's (Natascha McElhone) Vista, a private corporation with some government funding. Watching from his New Orleans home is the team's former commander, Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn), who has been excluded for reasons that will unfold very gradually. Tom is still deeply invested in the mission and becomes more so when the liftoff doesn't go as planned.

Soon, Tom is rounding up a new group of astronauts, including characters played by Keiko Agena, James Ransone, Rey Lucas and Hannah Ware. He's butting heads — not disrespectfully — with LisaGay Hamilton's Kayla Price, whose leadership position he usurps, and he's struggling with his daughter, Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron), an addict still grieving over the mysterious loss of her mother (Melissa George, wonderful in flashbacks). Other characters have similar personal issues — strained marriages, ailing parents — that come to the surface as Laz, driven and prickly and probably somewhere on the autistic spectrum, tries to mobilize resources before the next available launch window, in 24 months.

The show doesn't especially care what you "want" from it, hence the lack of terraforming by the third episode. Big dramatic conflicts are introduced fairly frequently — a choice between two candidates for the last crew position, a technological failing with the shuttle, a severe budget deficit — and then, without showing the key resolving scene, the drama jumps forward a few months to new points of conflict. At least one of the astronauts somehow wasn't given a backstory. There's an unseen character with a bayou accent who delivers occasional florid voiceovers, and who might be crucial to the plot or perhaps just a literary conceit. These are the sorts of things that will infuriate some viewers, understandably.

This is a show that's not afraid to push aggressively and metaphorically around something like the life cycle of a cicada or the resonances of a tuning fork — even if, combined with Mud cinematographer Adam Stone's impeccable photography and Colin Stetson's swelling score, this provokes a viewer reaction along the lines of "Oh, this is what somebody thinks a Terrence Malick movie about space travel would be like."

Nat Geo's Mars, in comparison, poses questions about the technology and business and politics of a space voyage and answers them, one at a time, with the help of experts and futurists. Those are not Willimon's primary interests, though surely he didn't lack for consultants. What he's really fascinated by is the people who would want to be part of a trip like this, especially when the specter of death begins to loom large. What would lead somebody to embark on a journey from which they might never return? How do the they handle the calculus of the potential epic advancement for humanity against the time lost with those they love? When is the collective benefit worth the personal cost? As to which of these leaps are heroic and forward-thinking, and which are driven by terrestrial fear and discomfort, there are no easy answers.

Tom has been to the moon, yet what was the cost to his fragile marriage and his scarred relationship with his daughter? As he prepares for the trip — the freshly wiry Penn's wildly successful onscreen fitness regimen includes jogging and underwater weight training — we sense that while Mars is a goal, there's plenty on Earth he's running away from. You can quickly see why Penn gravitated toward this as his series debut. His physical transformation and high-intensity confrontations with the impressively game Jacoby-Heron are showy, but the slowly unfolding role also lets him play quiet moments, and even light ones. (It's funny that I'm always surprised by how game Penn is to be a goofball. The guy who starred in Fast Times at Ridgemont High is still in there somewhere.)

Just as whole episodes go by in which Mars is barely mentioned, there are episodes in which Tom's storyline is very much backgrounded. As good as Penn is, his best episode is the lovely "Two Portraits," in which Jacoby-Heron and George have equal billing. Ware (freed from the American accents she's stumbled through in past episodic work), Agena and Hamilton all are much more interesting than their male astronaut counterparts. And McElhone finds a way to work around her character's built-in woodenness and, by the sixth episode, I felt an odd affection for Laz.

This is Willimon's second consecutive TV project (the first being House of Cards) in which a two-time Oscar-winning actor is the frontman for a story focused at least as much on female power and agency. This extends to the other side of the camera, where Willimon's writing staff is female-dominated and half of the episodes were directed by women, starting with Agnieszka Holland on the pilot.

In a departure from its more typical weekly rollout of shows, Hulu is making the entire first season of The First available at once. It's a smart move, because the series builds well after its stop-and-start beginning. It reminds you that before House of Cards went off the rails with soap opera high jinks and Kevin Spacey hamminess, it was a promising show about the personal cost of power. Think of The First similarly, rather than as Mars Trek, and you could be intrigued.

Cast: Sean Penn, Natascha McElhone, LisaGay Hamilton, Oded Fehr, James Ransone, Hannah Ware, Anna Jacoby-Heron, Keiko Agena, Rey Lucas
Creator: Beau Willimon
Premieres: Friday (Hulu)