Television

The First

Sean Penn’s space drama may take place in zero gravity, but it’s obsessed with gravitas.

Natascha McElhone and Sean Penn in The First.
Natascha McElhone and Sean Penn in The First.
Paul Schrimaldi

The First, which premieres Friday on Hulu, takes off in the wrong place. It’s the morning of the launch of the first attempted manned space flight to Mars—but star Sean Penn is not on board. Penn plays Tom Hagerty, the former commander of the crew, who was relieved of his duties some months earlier. Now he’s stuck watching from the couch, with his dog, in his gorgeous New Orleans home. (The First is set only 15 years in the future, but the entire space operation has moved to the Crescent City—presumably lured by the tax incentives offered to film crews in the present.) For the first 20 minutes of the series, you are introduced to the five astronauts on board, hear their banter and dedication, and meet their families, even though you know that they will not, in fact, be the first astronauts on Mars. Is it a spoiler if the name of the show gives away what happens next? It’s not called The Second.

The First was created by Beau Willimon, who also created Netflix’s House of Cards. The new series aspires to be its predecessor’s nobler reflection. House of Cards is an over-the-top, scenery-chewing tour through American politics centered on an amoral, avaricious character with world-historical ambitions. The First is about a man with other-world-historical ambitions, but one who is deserving—an intuitive and brave leader who has given his life to something greater than himself. The series inhabits an extra-governmental sphere, where private backing and congressional dollars actually get things done. Despite the one show being about corruption and the other being about heroic accomplishment, they are both about egoists. The series are further linked by a certain pretentiousness, the shared air of prestige dramas more fixated on delivering prestige than on supplying drama.

The First is a glossy, often-inert tale of devotion and spaceflight. Its first two episodes treat inevitabilities as questions, and unfold with the zip of a DVR-ed sporting event for which you already read the box score. Will the space program survive? Will it get funding from the government? Will Hagerty get back on a spaceship? For answers, see again: the name of this show. There are entire genres that thrive on jazzing up the predictable—in a heist picture, the gang always has to get together—but The First doesn’t do nimble or light. Parts of the show may take place in zero gravity, but it’s fixated on gravitas.

In the second episode, Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone), the cold genius and entrepreneur overseeing the entire Mars project—think Steve Jobs meets Elon Musk meets a non-corrupt Elizabeth Holmes—must explain to Congress (but really the audience) why going to Mars is worth it. Why risk the human life? Why spend the resources that could be spent elsewhere? Her inspirational speech feels a little halfhearted, not because the show doesn’t believe in the symbolic (and scientific) importance of reaching Mars, but because the series itself is the pep-talk on spaceflight’s behalf.

It’s become something of a joke in the peak-TV era to promise of a show: Stick with it, it gets better! But The First does get better after its first two episodes (before getting worse again) by jettisoning inevitability. It’s no knock on Penn’s performance that the most surprising thing about it is just how ripped a 58-year old man can be (very): He’s exactly the sort of reliable but emotional action hero whom we like to see entrusted with a big important fictional space mission. This is why his crew, the focus of Episodes 3 and 4, makes for more interesting television. They are a diverse bunch, including a Korean-American engineer, a mother whose own mother has Alzheimer’s, a newly engaged scientist, a Hispanic doctor, and an unattached pilot all united by their unyielding devotion to Mars, no matter the risk. Who will get kicked off the mission to make room for Hagerty? And how will this choice reverberate on his relationship with his second-in-command Lt. Price (LisaGay Hamilton), the black, queer woman he replaced as leader, who would have been the center of a more consistently compelling TV show?

The First knows there is a connection between heroism and narcissism. What person who didn’t possess both qualities would really want to go to outer space? As trouble keeps piling up for the mission, Laz asks the astronauts to reaffirm their commitment to it, to speak with their families about the possibility they will die on Mars. Laz, who will never go to space herself, is kind of the Frank Underwood of the piece: not the villain, but the driver of plot; the dreamer, if not the schemer. As the astronauts talk to their families, we see just how single-minded their devotion is, how unyielding. Strangers may think of them as heroes, but their loved ones will have a more complicated view.

This tension between family and space is the stuff of the series’ entire B-storyline, about Hagerty’s volatile relationship with his fragile, drug-addicted daughter Denise (Anne Jacoby-Heron), an artist still processing her mother’s death. Denise has some feelings about being raised by a man who was both hardly around and constantly at risk of dying in a shuttle explosion. It’s in this storyline that Willimon really lets his pretensions out. The fifth episode consists almost entirely of Denise’s flashbacks to her youth, theatrically rendered so that her memories appear to take place on a stage. Will Hagerty prioritize his daughter or space? The outcome, like so much else about The First, is a fait accompli. The first season ends as the show finally dispatches with the inevitable and gets to the great wide open. As flawed as I found the first season, I’ll admit, it hooked me enough that I’m interested to see how they live life on Mars.