If you start watching The First, Hulu’s latest prestige drama starring Oscar-winning actor Sean Penn in a rare TV role, expecting it to be “Sean Penn in space,” you’ll surely be left disappointed. The first season mostly stays earthbound as it focuses on the political, personal, and scientific stakes of sending the first human crew to Mars, but by the time the rocket takes off we’re left with a slow burn that doesn’t fully pay off—or adds much to the genre—and predictable turns interspersed with some decent character moments and gorgeous visuals.
With a focus on the crew and the people striving to make it happen, The First doesn’t shy away from the personal ramifications of signing up for a space mission of this nature. It disrupts their lives for several years, affects their family and friends, interrupts future plans, and after all that, there’s still the risk of new technology that could malfunction at any point. There’s no guarantee that you’ll come home, even if you’ve already gone to space before and even made it to the moon. But Mars could offer solutions to big problems that Earth is facing.
“That’s five people fulfilling the destiny of eight billion,” Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone), the CEO of Vista (the company sending the crew to Mars), says at one point to someone who is skeptical about the mission.
But the crew of the Providence 2 who we follow throughout much of the first season isn’t the one we start with. The launch that kicks off the show has a feeling of inevitable dread to it. There’s no connection with that crew, but the effects of what happens sticks with several of the characters for the rest of the series. (All eight episodes were available to critics, but the visual effects weren’t complete in some of the later episodes.)
Commander Tom Hagerty (Penn), a veteran astronaut who was supposed to lead that first mission before being pulled off close to launch, weighs the guilt of losing his crew with the scars from his personal life hanging over his head. Laz is ambitious and strives to complete her own mission as every move she makes is scrutinized from the start, but she’ll fight for her crew and their families—and if someone won’t make a call to step away, she will. (Thankfully, the show doesn’t try to pair Laz and Hagerty together.) The federal government is wary about signing off on another mission, preferring to abandon the stars over the potential of more dead astronauts. Vista eventually gets the money it needs—with some stipulations attached to it, including Hagerty leading the mission—but the looming threat remains: If you fuck up again, you’re done. Naturally, a machine critical to getting the astronauts home has some very critical flaws.
The first two episodes almost serve as a prequel to the series before you meet the rest of the crew, and slowly we start to explore their lives along with what Hagerty barging into that dynamic does to them. The addition of Hagerty means that the previous leader, Kayla Price (Lisa Gay Hamilton) now has to follow under his command while another qualified woman is cut from the crew for a male colleague she then has to tutor to accommodate Hagerty. Hagerty eventually gets it, even if it takes some exasperated explanations from Kayla about the perception of removing a queer Black woman from command in favor of a white man.
The crew has a close-knit dynamic, one that I wish we got to see more of during the season. Having been training this for years even before Hagerty barged in, they’re intimate with one another in ways that kind of crew has to be. They know aspects of each other’s lives few colleagues do and celebrate together.
Instead, more time is spent with Hagerty, his estranged daughter Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron), an artist who struggles with drug addiction, and the looming shadow of Hagerty’s dead wife Diane (Melissa George), a tattoo artist who spends the first few episodes in a typical Dead Wife role. The fifth episode fleshes her out more and provides shades of gray as we learn more about her struggles, but even then her characterization is on the weaker side. The emotional crux of the show is on this family dynamic, which is at times sweet and distraught as Haggerty and Denise try to move forward but find that they can’t let go of the past and their pain as they yell at one another. They arm themselves with their words and lash out, but they’re not used to that kind of combat; the regret washes over their faces before they even finish.
The First arrives on the heels of The First Man, a biopic about Neil Armstrong becoming the first man to step on the moon. There was a certain eerie echo of the conservative outrage to The First Man in a scene from The First where a member of Congress grilled Laz as the latter tried to convince Congress for more funding. Why, the lawmaker asked, should she support funding another mission to Mars that could help all of humanity when that money could be used to help Americans instead. (Alternative ways to find those particular funds aren’t discussed.) Laz later attempts to explain why she keeps trying to reach Mars. While some need to see something to believe it, she believes the inverse: that you need belief before proof.
And you can use that as one way to argue the case for The First. It’s got a lot going for it. It has the backing of Hulu, and its previous prestige hit The Handmaid’s Tale broke barriers by nabbing the best drama Emmy last year. It was created by Beau Willimon, whose other series House of Cards changed the rules for streaming entertainment dramas. It even has Penn as its A-list star (although some of his more recent comments about Me Too might turn away potential viewers). Mixed in are some incredible shots of space and nature, teasing the wonders that the crew wants to explore and what the future might hold. The First wants you to believe that all of those factors mixed together can achieve something great.
But what we’re left with is a show that often drags and leads to a kind of clichéd melodrama that has a lot of ideas but isn’t always successful at executing them. It’s familiar without adding anything particularly insightful. By the time the crew embarks on the mission, we’re left with another question: Could it become something new and exciting, or is it the same story we’ve seen before?