No matter how far you travel from home, you can never escape yourself. This sad fact underpins “The First,” Hulu’s new streaming series about the team undertaking a manned mission to Mars. The mission and the series is led by Sean Penn as Tom Hagerty, a seasoned astronaut whose time on the job has, historically, provided him the opportunity to escape a turbulent personal life, including a daughter (Anna Jacoby-Heron) with whom he’s effectively forfeited a relationship. As he prepares for his most challenging mission yet, long-simmering resentments, ones he’d do well to meaningfully address for perhaps the first time, are coming to a head here on Earth.
It’s an canny formulation—one man looks to the stars even as crises, at least in part of his own making, keep him bound to familiar soil. No surprise that it sprung from the mind of Beau Willimon, whose previous work on TV, Netflix’s “House of Cards,” was similarly tidily constructed around a big but somewhat simple idea. (On “Cards,” the idea was that power’s capability to corrupt is part of what makes it worth obtaining; here, it’s that outer space’s tendency to fling its visitor a million miles from his problem is what makes it worth visiting.) After the initial statement of purpose, though, the show falls victim to both pacing problems and a certain lopsidedness. A show like this, with title and premise centered around what it would mean to be a pioneer on a new planet, encourages an excited sort of stargazing; that quite so much of it is spent exploring Hagerty’s family crisis saps the energy and spirit from a show that should have both in spades.
It’s not that the show is poorly drawn—indeed, an episode assaying the history of Hagerty’s relationship with his wife (Melissa George), is perhaps the best of the series’s eight, in part because it’s the only one that achieves anything approaching consistency of tone. (In what seems an odd way to deal with the fact that some Hulu plans involve commercial breaks, scenes often just end without a real closing beat.) Indeed, the saga of the Hagerty family, in which both mother and daughter struggle with depression and addiction and Tom is ill-equipped to do anything but shout at them, is one to which “The First” so zealously commits that its other elements end up feeling out of place. But those other elements—chief among them a zippily optimistic notion of the spirit of exploration overcoming long odds—represent the notional premise of the show.
Tom does as much as any plot element to upset the show’s balance. We see him not only failing to save the women in his life, but reacting with the sort of searing rage we already know Penn, as an actor, carries in his back pocket. Watching him shatter glass in his household in reaction to his daughter’s failings calls into question whether or not Tom has the temperament to lead a space mission, a flaw the show understands; his diffident passive-aggression, refusing to confront big questions, causes problems with his second-in-command (LisaGay Hamilton). His flaws don’t, as in the case of so many other shows with troubled men at their center, make him good at his job: They make him passionate about it but bad at it, and they keep us from spending more time discovering what else “The First” has to offer.
The show’s flicks at sci-fi, after all, are compelling and fun, if underbaked. Natascha McElhone plays the CEO of a corporation working towards a mission that will represent a near-future humanity’s first steps away from a dying Earth. In one scene, McElhone meets with the president (played, in what represents a reason to hope the near future may not be so bleak, by the curmudgeonly actress Jeannie Berlin) in order to convince her the project is worth funding; with frustrating recognizability, politicians have been pushing back without providing an alternative, making McElhone into an idealist we end up cheering on. And, in keeping with the tradition of space stories giving us strong and inclusive teams, “The First” features many gifted actors in its supporting cast, other members of the team, including Hamilton as a dutiful astronaut who feels thwarted by her mercurial superior. The junior astronauts feel richly drawn in their moments onscreen, leaving us wishing we’d gotten more time outside the Hagerty home.
“The First” feels, at least, like something new. It has a level of sheer ambition that’s genuinely admirable, providing in its best moments a prismatic look at all the aspects of the sort of manned interplanetary mission we real-world Earthlings barely allow ourselves to imagine: The political opposition, the intrapersonal strife, the glimmers of idealism participants know better than to feel, but do anyway. It’s enough to make one excited for a second season. For now, centering “The First” around a family story that hits painful but often-predictable beats and that siphons away what is, elsewhere, a friskily passionate geekiness is a choice that keeps the worthy show from soaring.
Drama: Hulu (Eight episodes, eight reviewed), Fri., Sept. 14.
Cast: Sean Penn, Natascha McElhone, LisaGay Hamilton, Hannah Ware, Keiko Agena, Rey Lucas, James Ransone, Anna Jacoby-Heron, Brian Lee Franklin, Oded Fehr.
Executive Producers: Beau Willimon, Jordan Tappis.