THE FIRST -- Sean Penn leads an ensemble cast in this near-future drama about a crew of astronauts attempting to become the first humans on Mars. Under the direction of visionary aerospace magnate Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone), the crew contends with peril and personal sacrifice as they undertake the greatest pioneering feat in human history. Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone) and Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn), shown. (Photo by: Paul Schrimaldi/Hulu)
The opportunity to spring forth into the stars and become the first to ever land on Mars is a wonderful ideal. It’s about exploration, science, and furthering the survival of the human race. But to get there, it’s going to take a hell of a lot of work. Hulu’s The First, created by Beau Willmon (creator of the US version of House of Cards), is all about the work, placing its leads in the struggle leading up to launch, before the real complications can start in the vastness of space.
This simply being the start will surely annoy and frustrate a number of viewers. The First doesn’t mince its words, focusing on the tense personal and professional toll it takes to perform such a sacrifice of time… and, potentially, of life. It dives deep into these people’s lives, the good and the bad, through the two-year period leading up to the launch. The show asks for your patience, because it’s a drama about the people first and the mission second. You’re not going to get your space adventure, not yet. A taste of it, for sure. But this is about getting there, and taking you on the journey toward the journey.
Sean Penn stars as Tom Hagerty, a man relieved from the commanding role of an astronaut mission to Mars, the first of its kind. He is tortured, and for good reason: his life has blown up with a wife passed on and an estranged daughter. He watches on the sidelines as the mission he was meant for takes flight… and detonates in the air, something having gone horribly wrong. Tom steps in to help, not out of opportunity, but out of care and necessity, for these grieving families he’s come to know.
This starts out the main thrust of the season, as a new expedition is set in motion. Natascha McElhone stars as Laz Ingram, head of the space program, who needs Tom now more than ever, as the red tape of the tragic incident haunts every move forward. Anna Jacoby-Heron plays Denise, Tom’s daughter, who comes into his life just as things are coming back on track, her issues soon becoming his own.
Penn is terrific in the show, though much more subdued and quiet in his performance than what is normally expected of him. He is compassionate, a raw nerve. He pulls it off well, however, showing his emotions in a more heartbroken and almost beaten down sort of demeanor. He does get moments to shine, and he delivers with great force. He is the heart of the show, and his kinetic performance keeps it running.
McElhone does just as well, her emotions guarded and hidden just as much as Penn’s. Her character’s duty to the mission is prioritized above all else, but when the façade is dropped a few times, McElhone gives real humanity to the role. The remaining cast is vastly talented and well-served, each given the time they deserve to make the last stretch of the season bear the weight it’s meant to.
But it all comes at a cost. The show can be terribly slow at times, even glacial. Beau Willimon is taking his time setting up these characters and their shared mission with painstaking detail, almost to a fault. Some of that pace works wonders, while others fall a little flat. Denise, Tom’s daughter, has a good story at the heart of her arc, but the way it’s told can be a little trying as it crawls to its conclusion. Some characters can feel a little guarded, leading to them not growing the way they’re meant to. It can be hard to tell if this was intentional or by accident.
The show also takes liberties in artistic shots and repeated dialogue at times, hints of a Terrence Malick movie, but lighter, of course. It is used effectively at points, but can be lengthy in others. The show is a looker, showcasing some gorgeous space shots and earthly landscapes bathed in various colors and light. The score by Colin Stetson is at times masterfully emotional and impacting. The main theme of the series is rather beautiful: hopeful and demanding in its sound.
I don’t want to sound too negative about something I am certainly positive on. The season did come to a screeching halt at times, long in some areas and stories eating at the main plot. But The First is a show still worth seeing, because it offers an eight hour view of the triumph of the human spirit. It shows the mountain of difficulties facing a team going on a journey that could cost their futures, their lives. Willimon tells a good story here and has a solid cast at hand. The First’s opening season is a good beginning, the first that can lead to something bigger.