I’ve just seen all 8 episodes of the first season of Hulu’s new streaming series, “The First” starring Sean Penn and Natascha McElhone (not to be confused with “First”, the upcoming Neil Armstrong movie). I have to admit that, while I eventually warmed up to this deeply angsty new series, a part of me initially felt a bit cheated.
I actually opened a new Hulu account in anticipation of this series, which I incorrectly assumed (having avoided most spoilers) would be a dramatic series centered around the exploration of Mars. I was half-expecting a scaled-down weekly version of Andy Weir’s “The Martian” (a favorite book and film of mine).
Well, “The First” is not that series.
A far more accurate antecedent for this series would be Robert Altman’s little-remembered 1968 pre-Apollo 11 moonshot movie called “Countdown”, starring Robert Duvall and James Caan (future costars of “The Godfather”).
“Countdown”, made at the height of the Space Race to the moon, was a story of two astronauts “Chiz” and “Lee” (Duvall & Caan, respectively) who compete against each other to be the first solitary astronaut on the moon in a Hail Mary-pass to beat the Russians there, using a modified Gemini capsule.
Politics force military man Chiz out of the running. Civilian pilot Lee, Chiz’s backup, is bumped up to replace him. Their resentments toward each other, as well their respective family dramas (not to mention the politics between NASA and the press) take up the majority of “Countdown”’s sparse, 101-minute running time. The heavy-duty space action takes place only in the final act of the film.
That is the template for Beau Willimon’s (“House of Cards”) new series; background and character make up the first seven episodes of the series; it’s only in the final eighth episode where we see the crew finally getting underway to Mars.
Most of the story is about the humans behind the voyage, not the voyage itself. Once I relaxed my initial expectations a bit, I appreciated what I was seeing on its own terms.
***** SPOILERS *****
A po-faced Sean Penn stars as astronaut Tom Hagerty, who is forced out of commanding the first Mars shot, “Providence One,” because of his deeply troubled family life.
Tom’s addict daughter Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron, in a terrific performance) has suffered an overdose in the months following the suicide death of her mother Diane (seen in flashback and played by Melissa George). That’s a heavy backstory to unpack, and “The First” takes its time in doing so. While that kind of dramatic baggage may be off-putting to those expecting a flashy space opera (as I initially did), it’s very effective in getting under the characters’ skins. These aren’t action figures; they’re flawed and relatable people.
Natascha McElhone (“Designated Survivor”) costars as heavily put-upon NASA administrator Laz Ingram. In the opening episode, we see Ingram forced to deal with the Challenger-like catastrophic loss of Providence One, shortly after liftoff. The fallout from the tragedy is immediate. Members of the late crew’s families begin a class-action suit against NASA, hearings are held, and the fault is traced back to human error (a ‘good luck’ coin is lodged into a booster seal by accident). Ingram is near-suicidal (attempting to kill herself with her self-driving car), but with Hagerty’s help, she pulls together a new team as NASA decides to try again.
The new crew are each given various degrees of shading and development. Aiko Hakari (Keiko Agena) is dealing with the potential separation from two young boys as well as her ailing mother, who is sliding into dementia.
Crewmates Nick Fletcher (James Ransone) and Sadie Hewitt (Hannah Ware) are forced to compete against each other for a single seat remaining on the mission, following Tom’s return-to-flight status; a decision forced upon them by NASA’s own PR needs.
Kayla Price (LisaGay Hamilton) was meant to be the new mission’s commander before Tom’s return. Price was initially suspicious that NASA got cold feet with a black lesbian being ‘the face’ of the mission. Her relationship with Tom reminded me fleetingly of the one between Chiz and Lee in “Countdown.” Rey Lucas rounds out the cast as bachelor astronaut Matteo Vega. Over the course of eight episodes of season one, most of the oxygen is taken up by Tom’s family drama, but a nice amount of time is spent developing these other characters as well.
There is also a minor subplot which sees Tom in a noncommittal relationship with the widow (Annie Parisse) of the ill-fated Providence One’s commander, Tom’s old friend and rival.
The first episode of this initial season, “Separation,” sets the tone for the series with the tragic loss of Providence One.
As someone who was just 19 years old at the time of the 1986 Challenger disaster, I have to give it up to the producers & cast of “The First” for very accurately capturing the mood and feel of that day. I still vividly recall (nearly 33 years later) watching on TV as the Challenger crew of seven were killed right in front of my eyes. Seeing a fictionalized version of that incident in “Separation” was surprisingly unsettling, and that was an emotion I wasn’t expecting to feel with this series. That said, I don’t mind feeling unsettled either, because that’s what good movies and series are supposed to do. Good drama should be a thorough workout for our emotions. Even the negative ones.
“Two Portraits” is a mid-season flashback episode which tells the story of Diane and Tom’s relationship, her suicide and how it led to her daughter’s addiction; all of which became catalysts for Tom losing his seat on the doomed Providence One. It solidly pays off on the previously hinted backstory of Tom, his late wife Diane, and their troubled daughter Denise.
“The Choice” and “Near and Far” are the final two episodes; with “The Choice” showing the families/loved ones of the crew preparing for the departure on a possible one-way mission to the Red Planet. Each crew member has to sign off on a letter of consent, and we see the struggles of each as they talk it over with their families. Tom, with his troubled daughter is, of course, the last to sign.
“Near and Far” is the big space ‘payoff’ episode. We finally see the launch of Providence 2, achieving Earth orbit, docking with its Mars-mothership and inserting itself into a Martian trajectory. I must say, the visual effects are so good that they barely call any attention to themselves; they are as matter-of-fact as anything else in this barely science-fiction series.
I’m assuming Season 2 will see the crew reaching Mars, intercutting between their time on the Red Planet with their families and loved ones on Earth. And, like the mid-season “Two Portraits,” I expect there might also be an entire episode (or two) told in flashback as well.
Observation and critique.
I also appreciate the minor bits of near-futurism thrown in. With the series only taking place a dozen or so years from now, we thankfully don’t see people wearing silver spandex or flying hovercraft to work. The ‘future’ vehicles fit right in with today’s cars, save for minor touches such as fully voice-activated door-opening and self-driving modes. The cellphones are also very close to those of today, with calls being entirely voice-activated. We also see a higher tech version of Google glasses, which can create full virtual environments while being no more clunky than a pair of sunglasses. I could see these coming down the pike any day now, along with the semi-and fully automated vehicles. “The First” is mildly speculative rather than hard sci-fi.
One minor nit of “The First” might be the somewhat humorless depiction of its astronauts, particularly Sean Penn’s sullen Tom Hagerty. I certainly appreciate that Hagerty is following in the footsteps of his fallen comrades, and he has a deeply troubled personal life, but the real-life astronauts whom I’ve met/seen in person seem a lot more affable and optimistic. After all, these are people who are going to spend months (or years) together in cramped quarters on a Mars voyage. Not to mention that they knowingly accept death as a potential occupational hazard and get on with their jobs. They can’t afford to be so sullen and withdrawn. Humor, emotional pliancy and optimism are vital personality components for astronauts, particularly on years-long missions.
Hopefully this is something we’ll see addressed or otherwise amended in Season Two, when the crew finally arrive at Mars.
If you go into “The First” expecting a weekly Mars exploration space opera, you’re liable to be disappointed. But if you’re open to a richer tableau of complicated, flawed characters who aim to rise above our troubled planet and reach for other worlds, your disappointment might be somewhat mitigated.
“The First” Season One is now available for streaming on Hulu.com.