Hulu’s The First is being sold as the story of Sean Penn leading the crew chosen for the first manned mission to Mars. This is two bait-and-switches for the price of one. For starters, when the series begins, Penn is not actually part of that first crew until something goes wrong and he’s asked to lead a second mission. And the series, from House of Cards creator Beau Willimon, is barely interested in Mars (which no character gets physically close to in Season One), preferring to use the mission as expensive and distracting window dressing for a story about a father and daughter struggling through shared grief in different ways.
The Second isn’t as snazzy a title, I suppose, and the father/daughter angle sounds much less exciting, even if it stars a two-time Oscar winner in his first regular TV series role. But the series (Hulu is releasing all eight episodes on September 14; I’ve watched the whole thing) periodically seems to remember what it’s supposed to be about, providing all the attendant pageantry and triumphant music and inspirational speeches you might expect, before shifting back to the glummest, slowest, least enthusiastic approach possible to the material.
Characters are repeatedly asked to justify the enormous expense, risk and time (the crew will spend 18 months on the Martian surface in addition to the round trip from Earth) of the mission. Some give answers about the grandeur of exploration or the necessity of colonizing other worlds in the wake of how badly we’ve treated this one. The First itself rarely seems to buy into their arguments. It’s possible to tell a deeply skeptical story about this subject, but it’s less that the series thinks going to Mars is a bad idea than that the whole space travel thing is an inconvenient impediment to the family tale.
So let’s talk about that. Penn plays Tom Hagerty, a legendary astronaut who has already walked on the moon (the series takes place in the early 2030s). He’s still in flying shape — the 58-year-old Penn is all sinew and bulging veins — but has been emotionally derailed by the death of his tattoo artist wife Diane (Melissa George) and the spiral of addiction into which their daughter Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron) fell as a result. Tom is a sad man on a sad show, and even after the Elon Musk-esque tech baron Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone) asks him to lead a new Mars mission, his eyes only fully come to life when he’s around Denise. It’s a performance so understated it verges on bored at times, even as we’re meant to see that Diane’s death has snuffed out whatever spark drove him to join NASA in the first place.
Jacoby-Heron gives the more dynamic performance, and is by far the best reason to watch, even if you have to slog through a lot of tedium about the mission to get to the livelier personal story. The fifth episode, which rapidly flashes through Tom and Diane’s marriage, Denise’s childhood and adolescence, and the immediate aftermath of Diane’s death, is still melancholy and slow. But it feels vivid and immediate in a way that almost none of the rest of the season does, where we watch the socially awkward Laz struggle to schmooze additional government funding, explore the personal lives of other crew members (played by, among others, LisaGay Hamilton, Keiko Agena and Hannah Ware) and listen to a mysterious and deeply pretentious narrator drone on about cicadas.
The whole series is emotionally monochrome, but it at least makes sense when we’re in Tom and Denise’s orbit. And even that’s not enough to fill eight episodes of TV; each installment clocks in at a theoretically brisk 45 minutes, but feels twice that, particularly whenever the focus returns to the loooong prep for Tom’s new mission. All those scenes carry the weight of obligation: the commercial peg for the story Willimon’s more excited to tell, bleached of all passion, humor, fun or even basic energy.
The First is under no burden to be as quippy or feel-good as The Martian, as awestruck as The Right Stuff, as gee-whiz as Apollo 13 or From the Earth to the Moon. But it needs to have some compelling reason to tell this story, in this way, and it never really finds one.Why should we as a species try to visit our nearest planetary neighbor? There are a lot of reasons to consider it. Why does The First want to go there? Eight episodes in, I have no idea.