There’s something elemental about the desire to look to the stars, to imagine oneself as well as, perhaps, all humanity, finding a future beyond the planet we once called home. This innate desire to explore and discover is, indeed, so deeply encoded that it presents a trap for artists — it can too easily be traded on for an easy emotional charge without other, necessary storytelling work having been done.
That’s, unfortunately, the case with “Away,” Netflix’s new drama series starring Hilary Swank as the astronaut leading an international expedition to Mars. Created by Andrew Hinderaker and boasting executive producers including Jessica Goldberg, Jason Katims, and Matt Reeves, the series has all the markers of a prestige consideration of what it means for humanity to take flight, but leans so heavily on inspirational tropes of the genre that it never, itself, soars.
Swank, here, plays Emma Green, so mission-driven that she won’t allow herself to meaningfully register the pain of leaving behind her husband (Josh Charles) and teen daughter (Talitha Bateman); her crew is made up of scientists (among them fellow travelers played by Ato Essandoh, Mark Ivanir, Ray Panthaki, and Vivian Wu) who bring their own charged personal or family histories to bear on the mission. There’s a significant chance of failure and the requisite brushes with terror and the limitations of the human body, all of which tend to feel somewhat like boxes checked. As regards the mission itself, too much chaos is unleashed early on to carry much significance. We can’t seriously believe the mission will fail in its earliest going, not least because the show’s tone is so strenuously meant to be stirring and uplifting, so we simply wait out the crisis of the moment. And as for the astronauts: If each character’s motivations can be explained schematically as the sum of their experiences to date and nothing more, the animating curiosity that should lie at the center of a show like this is absent entirely. It’s all, perhaps fittingly, a bit weightless.
Which is not to say that the actors aren’t pushing back, inasmuch as they can. Swank, always a performer of startling grit, has a strong idea of who Emma is; it’s just that Emma’s dutifulness and singleminded obsession need a series willing to match her audaciousness. Even though it’s been a subject plumbed in fiction many times before, the idea of leaving one’s family for years on a possibly doomed mission is mind-boggling. It demands more of the writing and direction than “Away” gives, with scenes on the ship giving way to gauzy and predictable flashbacks and with life on earth trending in the direction of after-school special. Emma’s husband’s struggle — he, almost immediately after her departure, has a sudden medical emergency — and her daughter’s ongoing rebellion are soapy without pleasurable excess; they’re manufactured conflict from a lesser show than “Away” is capable of being. And Emma’s perpetual contact, real and imagined, with family is a storytelling aid the show leans on too easily, dodging the isolating repercussions of what it really means to be, well, away.
In all, this is a story we’ve seen before, told in tones of melodrama-without-grandeur that sap its power. The genre in which “Away” is playing is familiar enough that, within the past two years, it’s the second streaming series very specifically starring a two-time Oscar winner confronting what it means to leave one’s family behind to explore Mars. (The first? “The First,” with Sean Penn on Hulu.) In order to convince us that this is a journey worth taking at length, “Away” needed, or still needs, to show us something we haven’t seen before — including characters worth following beyond our, and their, exceedingly familiar world.