It’s going to be a growing trend, over the next few months, of shows where the concept of space travel is given the “grounded” (for lack of a better word) treatment. Challenger: The Final Flight, a new docuseries on the Challenger tragedy, is due out on Netflix soon. Disney+’s The Right Stuff is a new fact-based take on the early days of the space program, based on the literary classic by Tom Wolfe. If it can finish production on its COVID-halted second season, For All Mankind will continue imagining a plausible alternate reality where the space program kept pushing into the future. And here’s another Netflix offering, Away, starring two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank as the leader of the first international manned mission to Mars.
It’s a pretty simple premise, meaning that much of what defines the show’s flavor is driven by its producers, who include Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights, Parenthood), showrunner Jessica Goldberg (The Path), and creator Andrew Hinderaker (Pure Genius). Looking at those prior credits, it’s thus not a surprise that Away doesn’t go for flash or drama, but is driven by character stories told against the backdrop of a terrifying inky void. There are no aliens lurking in the shadows here — instead, it’s basically a family/workplace drama except at one point part of someone’s foot falls off because space travel, my dudes, might just physically fuck you up.
Chris Jones’ detailed Esquire account about astronaut Scott Kelly served as the primary inspiration for the series, which digs into the physical realities of what happens when human meatsacks strap themselves to a ton of explosives and blast off into a vacuum filled with a thousand possibilities for death. (Look, I really love stories set in space, but that doesn’t mean I ever want to go there.) Emma’s (Swank, capable and commanding) team of the world’s best and brightest include Misha (Mark Ivanir), Earth’s most experienced cosmonaut, wry-tongued Indian co-pilot Ram (Ray Panthaki), Ghanan/British botanist and space newbie Kwesi (Ato Essandoh), and Lu (Vivian Wu), the reserved Chinese representative who has been tagged as the first person to set foot on the surface of the solar system’s fourth planet.
Of course, they’ve all left people behind, with Emma’s family taking up the majority of the Earth-bound screen time, and that’s okay because Josh Charles plays Matt, the most loyal and supportive and wonderful husband ever, a role which fits the Good Wife and Wet Hot American Summer star like a glove. (Not sarcasm. He’s great.)
To go into details about what all these people face over the course of this first season would be far too spoiler-y, but the show does manage to pack in a star-crossed LGBTQ love story, medical emergencies, multiple characters exploring questions about faith, a puppet show, and again, part of a person’s foot just falling the fuck off. Which is to say — it is rarely boring, and while the production design doesn’t push beyond what we’ve seen in other TV shows set in space (real and fictional) it’s solid across the board. Plus the episode directors, including Edward Zwick and Bronwen Hughes, manage to have a lot of fun with the zero-G sequences.
The biggest obstacle Away faces over the course of its 10-episode first season is the fact that much like a spaceship, a TV show is a delicate machine, one with many many moving parts. The engines of the best shows purr like a Porsche — but when Away shifts gears, it sometimes feels out of alignment. Not in a disastrous way, it still gets you where you need to go. But in this metaphor, the stuttering of the engine means spending a little too much time on the Earth dramas, such as Emma’s daughter Alexis, who like many other prestige drama teenage daughters to come before her, is played ably by Talitha Bateman but lacks any definition beyond her love for her parents and her slight rebel streak.
As someone who watches a lot of genre series, there’s something refreshing about how flat-out straightforward Away can be. But at times, it also is so caught up in technical malfunctions to create drama that it feels like it’s losing sight of the bigger picture. The show does not eschew the political issues inherent with space travel, but they’re treated as a sideline, perhaps in part because the show is set in a relatively unspecified not-too-distant future, one advanced enough to design a mission like this but not advanced enough to evolve beyond the iPad as a regular fixture. (Seriously, everyone has a damn tablet on this show, including the people in space.) Away is very much about the mission — there and back again — but as it’s largely rooted in a very 2019 status quo (something that feels very foreign now), it’s hard to get a sense of what kind of world the crew is leaving behind, and to what they might return.
Still, at the key moments, when the show focuses on a character’s attempt to reconnect with a loved one, an astronaut takes a massive risk, or something seemingly impossible manages to happen, that Friday Night Lights-esque magic can be felt on screen.
When the question of “Why Mars?” gets asked during The West Wing episode “Galileo,” eloquent speechwriter Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe, speaking the words of Aaron Sorkin) says,
‘Cause it’s next. For we came out of the cave, and we looked over the hill, and we saw fire. And we crossed the ocean, and we pioneered the West, and we took to the sky. The history of man is hung on the timeline of exploration, and this is what’s next.
Here on Earth, our problems are countless, but when we look to the stars, Mars is next. And Away does one thing very very well — make it seem worth it.
Away Season 1 is streaming now on Netflix.