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The Thin Red Planet.

Season 1 of The First debuts Friday, September 14th on Hulu.

House of Cards’ Beau Willimon has crafted a meticulously weighty and epic Mission to Mars series with The First – a story centered on scientists and astronauts, about 10 to 15 years from now, attempting humankind’s first-ever manned venture to the Red Planet.

It’s a series that’s equal parts gripping and plodding. Some will be bored by the turgid self-importance and overall glum vibe while other viewers will latch onto the Terrence Malick-esque poetics and “life in pieces” visual philosophy storytelling.

Overall, the results are mixed. There’s good and bad here, but the first four episodes, the crucial chapters for drawing someone in, are the most headache inducing. The First does itself no favors by giving us a ton of clinical, understated drama right up front.

Oscar-winner Sean Penn (Milk, Mystic River), diving into his first TV series (not his first TV role, however), quarterbacks The First as Tom Hagerty, the Mars team commander wrestling with both a recent family tragedy and an addict daughter, Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron), in a perpetual teetering state. We catch glimpses into the other astronauts’ lives as well – played by LisaGay Hamilton, Keiko Agena, Hannah Ware, James Ransone – as the show works best when it’s about people trying to come to terms with possibly sacrificing their lives, or in the very least, years away from their loved ones, for the sake of humanity-changing space exploration. These are driven people who, deep down, will choose to leave and head into the stars. Or, at least, they’ll seriously regret it if they don’t.

Penn is solid as the lead, though he’s maybe a bit too solid overall, as Hagerty is meant to be an esteemed and inspirational presence and Penn plays him as a soft-spoken and glowering mess for half the season. After a massively tragic mission setback, which is designed to rock viewers in the first episode, Hagerty’s words are supposed to provide comfort for those directly affected, and motivation for politicians to continue to support the project, but he’s so sour and sullen that it rarely feels like he even wants to have another go at Mars. Half the time it sounds like he’s trying to talk himself, and others, out of doing it.

At the halfway point though, when the series digs into the death of Hagerty’s wife (Melissa George) and how it’s worked to wreck Denise and splinter her relationship with her father, The First firmly feels like it’s found a story worth exploring. Because at that point, Mars could be anything. Any target. Any goal. Hagerty could be any type of explorer, in any era, or even anyone intensely passionate about their work, and his dynamic with Denise would still ring true. It’s one thing for a significant other to grow restless and weary with a partner whose consumed by something other than them, but all in all, they made the choice to be with that person. A child born to a well meaning-but-absent parent experiences a different type of struggle.

Hagerty’s ongoing dance with Denise, and how the ripples of it directly impact whether or not he’ll be able to lead the Mars mission, is the full heart of the series. And it’s also the undertow that allows Natascha McElhone’s Laz Ingram to shine and emerge as the show’s most surprisingly interesting character. Ingram, the Mars program’s visionary aerospace magnate is, ostensibly, every cold corporate-speak character you’ve ever seen. She doesn’t like speeches, or compliments, and has to be told to console the friends and families of those who sacrificed their lives for the mission.

Ingram is the sleeper hit of the series. At first, she only sees Denise as a variable. She tries to check in with Hagerty to see how his daughter’s doing because what she really cares about is the mission and she knows Denise could complicate matters beyond fixing. Ingram’s also not comfortable playing nice, faking personability, and – basically – pretending like she’s not okay with people dying in the name of going to Mars. Because she is.

Ingram’s journey, with regards to Denise, is an understated and fascinating one. No one has a showy performance on The First, as it’s not that kind of show (though Penn does get a few moments to Penn it up here and there), but the second half of the show is when everyone’s emotions start to come center stage and Ingram’s mild shifts feel the most important because of how we initially came to understand her. And because of how these types of characters are usually portrayed.

Colin Stetson’s soaring score is magnetic. Often times, when binging shows for review, a show’s score will leave a pretty significant impression on me. Sometimes it’s better than the show itself. Marco Polo comes to mind easily. The First’s hyperdrive drone is there to remind you of the importance of the mission, even when the show might miss the mark on occasion.

It also lends itself nicely to the Malick-ian existential narration (The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life, both starring Penn) that slides through The First, spoken by an unknown and mostly unseen rough-handed Southern man who’s building old telephones in a shed. Is he a character from someone’s backstory? Does he exist now? Is he from the future? Is he God? Who the hell knows? But once the music hits, everything he says sounds like smooth prophetic wisdom.

Anna Jacoby-Heron deserves a lot of credit here too, as Denise feels like a vibrant and understandable character. As a young woman with mental illness and substance abuse issues, Denise could have easily become a dreaded “TV Teen” – or even a cursed “TV Spouse” type. Which is to say “Someone who exists to prevent the main character from doing the thing the main character is supposed to do.” Whether it’s Walter White becoming a drug lord or Rick Grimes trying to survive a zombie hellscape, these cliche characters often bear the brunt of fan wrath because they appear self-absorbed in the face of bigger, more dangerous things. Denise is more complex than that, and the series does an amazing job of layering her in a way that makes her intriguing and likable.

The Verdict

When The First focuses on the personal challenges of its characters and their struggles to balance a pioneering space mission with family, it strikes a firm chord. And the epically enchanting music works to coat everything with a luxurious auditory brush. But the first four episodes are a bit of a slog as the show chooses to put its dullest and least personal foot forward.


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