Sean Penn Has Space Suit, May Travel in ‘The First’
The five astronauts of “The First,” when they finally set off for Mars, have the usual payload of scientific experiments and shiny wrenches casually cartwheeling through zero gravity. They also carry another cargo, particular to the series: guilt, recrimination and depression, built up through eight episodes of stylish but tedious and formulaic family drama.
They go into space weighed down with the trite stuff.
“The First,” starring Sean Penn and making its premiere Friday on Hulu, is the second series from the screenwriter and playwright Beau Willimon, who also created “House of Cards” for Netflix. He seems to be trying to take the historical-epic framework and triumphal spirit of films like “Apollo 13” and “The Right Stuff” and imbue it with the mystical, grandiloquent artiness of a Stanley Kubrick or a Terrence Malick.
What he arrives at is something less interesting than any of those models (though more watchable than some). As in “House of Cards” (which begins its final season on Netflix on Nov. 2), Mr. Willimon’s instincts here are primarily melodramatic. In a season spent almost entirely on the preparations for an interplanetary voyage (the two-and-a-half-year round trip will be covered in future seasons, if they come), science, engineering, politics and adventure are rationed to make room for soap opera.
Personal lives are part of most space-travel stories, but when done right — as in Philip Kaufman’s “Right Stuff,” the genre’s apogee — the back stories illuminate what makes the astronauts tick, the physical and psychological capabilities that suit them for the job. “The First” focuses on what threatens to keep the astronauts grounded.
And the situations Mr. Willimon and his writing staff have come up with are also pretty earthbound. One crew member struggles with putting her mother in assisted living. One feels she’s been sidelined because she’s female, black and queer. (The show puts most of its social-justice eggs in one basket.) Spouses are, in general, frightened, morose and overwhelmed. Apparently it doesn’t occur to anyone to at least feign excitement for a loved one who has the chance to go to Mars.
Most lengthily examined, but no more original, is the plight of the mission commander, Tom Hagerty (Mr. Penn, starring in a series for the first time). A widower for reasons that take a while to come clear, he has a strained relationship with his daughter (Anna Jacoby-Heron of MTV’s “Finding Carter”), and a lot of time is spent on their intertwined journeys — his toward space (and therefore even further away from her), hers toward sobriety and emotional stability.
White male gloom is a perpetual growth area in prestige television, with Benedict Cumberbatch (“Patrick Melrose”), Bill Hader (“Barry”), Ed Harris (“Westworld”), Bob Odenkirk (“Better Call Saul”) and Matthew Rhys (“The Americans”) riding it to current or recent Emmy nominations. Mr. Penn has plenty of experience at it from his film career, and his performance here is astronaut-like: technically flawless, but also buttoned down and a little robotic.
The problem is that he’s playing an abstraction: Hagerty is the anguished modern hero, from his tight body and artfully graying hair to his picturesque New Orleans pad (above his dead wife’s tattoo parlor) and his dog named Apollo. The screenplays go through some nimble gymnastics to suggest Hagerty’s culpability in his wife’s and daughter’s problems without actually holding him responsible for anything, which would detract from his own victimhood. It’s as if Mr. Willimon felt he had to make up for creating the Machiavellian Frank Underwood in “House of Cards.”
The character’s insubstantiality comes clear when the fragile peace between Hagerty and his daughter breaks down, and he lashes out; even Mr. Penn, stuck playing sorrowful nobility in scene after scene, can’t make the sudden violence and extreme emotion believable. (Mr. Penn gets exactly one quirky, funny moment in the eight episodes, when a nervous flyer says she hates landings and a bemused Hagerty murmurs, “It’s just the flaps.”)
Other actors fare better. Natascha McElhone finds graceful notes in the obsessive drive of Hagerty’s boss, the founder of the private rocket company that has contracted with NASA for the Mars mission, and LisaGay Hamilton is good as Hagerty’s loyal but frustrated second-in-command. Keiko Agena and Oded Fehr, as key scientists, liven things up whenever they get to discuss the actual mechanics of the trip.
There’s also fun to be had from the near-future setting, where nearly everything is voice controlled and real strides have been made in virtual reality. On the few occasions when spaceflight is depicted, it’s visually impressive.
No one can really rescue the show from Mr. Willimon’s tendencies, though. The arch sentimentality can get Capraesque, as when Hagerty tells a hostile Senate committee that he’s decided not to testify, and instead carries the day by showing a bereaved family a spacewalk video. Worse are the flares of pretentiousness, like an unidentified, unexplained narrator who growls platitudes (“The stars and the dirt, they’re the same dust”) while laboriously rehabbing an ancient pay phone. That’s when you know that “The First” probably isn’t going to achieve escape velocity.