If you’re looking for a compelling, propulsive drama series about the first manned mission to Mars, The First is not that show. But if you’re up for a drama about a Sad Man with a Tortured Past who is the all-important Savior for a mission only he can lead, well in that sense The First delivers. The new Hulu original drama series from former House of Cards showrunner Beau Willimon is billed as a near-future-set show about mankind’s first manned mission to Mars. But the meandering, self-important drama is far more interested in faking profundity about life and watching Sean Penn look thoughtful than it is in telling a story about, you know, space travel.
If you watched the trailers for The First and wondered why all the astronauts were acting so sad, well there’s a very good reason for that. Minor spoilers, but the show’s first episode opens on the day of the launch. Sean Penn plays former mission commander Tom Hagerty, who was removed from the endeavor for reasons unknown, and must watch on his home television. But within the first 10 minutes of the episode, we see the spacecraft lift off and explode in mid-air. The rest of this episode deals with the immediate fallout from the event, evoking the confusion, anger, and grief of the 9/11 tragedy.
It’s a bold decision to be sure, but it makes for one of the weirdest “pilots” in recent memory. The episode doesn’t even really end with a promise of what the series is going forward, so while the show was marketed about planning a mission to Mars, you very quickly find yourself instead watching overly dramatic grief porn. Indeed, The First has far more in common with The Leftovers than The Martian, albeit without any of the HBO series’ sci-fi flourishes or complex characters.
The show’s protagonist is built in the mold of recent prestige drama lead characters, i.e. a man who is very sad, whose wife is dead, and whose daughter is struggling with both addiction issues and abandonment issues from the fallout of her mother’s death. Except The First doesn’t really dig too deep into the complexity of Tom’s relationships beyond very quiet scenes in which he looks to be lost in thought or gazing up at the stars. And it’s all just a little much when Tom is suddenly turned into the only person who can fix this PR disaster, given that he alone can empathize with the grieving families because he lost his wife.
Indeed, the central “problem” after the first episode is convincing Congress to give a manned mission to Mars another go. The entire endeavor was run privately by a company called Vista, with Natascha McElhone giving a fine performance as Vista’s cold, somewhat uncomfortable CEO. The show does dig into a few interesting dilemmas during this story point, namely the debate over whether it’s worth spending taxpayer money on a mission to Mars to forge a future for Earth’s climate-change-affected inhabitants, or if that money is better invested in schools and services on our home planet. But alas, that fascinating debate is short-lived.
At every turn, The First is far more interested in lingering shots of Tom in pensive thought, or delivering a monologue about man’s destiny for space travel, or grieving for his dead wife. And perhaps that would’ve been fine if the show had something else to offer, but it also misses the mark in telling a genuinely compelling story about space travel.
Not every show needs a central mystery or a piece of intrigue to keep audiences guessing. It certainly didn’t hurt Mad Men to introduce the Dick Whitman question, but the rest of the show was so good that ultimately the mystery of Dick Whitman became secondary to whatever else was going on. The issue with The First is that Tom lacks any kind of complex shading or air of intrigue, despite a solid performance from Penn. He feels more like a pale imitation of every Sad Man character who’s led a prestige drama series in the past five years, and when the central characters aren’t interesting (at least not yet—I’ve seen three of the show’s eight first-season episodes, so perhaps it improves), there needs to be something to keep audiences engaged.
But there’s not. The show is about the astronauts and executives leading the first manned mission to Mars, so if they don’t get another mission off the ground, there’s no show. Which means obviously there’s going to be another mission, and once you set that goal post, there are few questions remaining and, to be frank, few reasons to continue watching given the series’ languid pacing.
There’s not just more TV now, there’s more good TV now than ever. Recently people like Vince Gilligan and David Chase were given the freedom to stretch the limits of what a traditional drama TV series could be. Rulebooks were thrown out the window in favor of character-centric, ambitious storytelling. But not every show needs to be so light on plot, not every show needs naturalistic cinematography, and not every show can get by with simply casting a movie star and calling it a day. Shows like Breaking Bad and The Sopranos bucked trends so well precisely because their writers knew how and why good television worked, and knew exactly where to make adjustments.
The First, meanwhile, feels like it’s bucking convention simply to buck convention, without enough thought given to what keeps audiences engaged. There’s a great, involving, and thoughtful show in here somewhere, but this current iteration is a failed mission.
All eight episodes of The First premiere on Hulu on Friday, September 14th.