'The First' season 1 review: Hulu's Mars mission drama's strength comes from being firmly grounded to Earth
Beau Willimon's first serialized TV narrative breaks away from 'House of Cards' by exploring the indomitable human spirit in Hulu's 'The First.'
'The First,' the latest original series from Hulu and 'House of Cards' creator Beau Willimon, is a gripping, engaging drama that details humanity's attempt at the first manned mission to Mars.
Starring Sean Penn in his first regular TV role as Captain Tom Hagerty, the show is set in the near future, characterized by small changes to everyday objects — slightly futuristic versions of cars, flashlights, eyeglasses and cigarettes — 'The First' takes a unique perspective on the sci-fi genre by placing the spotlight on the psyche of its characters and the interplay between them instead of the usual space narrative that explores a crew's adventurous escapades in the great beyond.
The very first episode of the show has Beau Willimon's signature aesthetics written all over it. But in his first serialized television work after 'House of Cards,' the approach to the theme is completely different. 'The First' is as earnest as 'House of Cards' was cynical. Where 'House of Cards' exposed the underbelly of the system in a constant state of paranoia and opportunism, 'The First' shines with a glimmer of optimism, with the indomitable human spirit that refuses to give up against all odds taking center stage. It's a show that's built to aspire.
The very first episode of the show starts with the haggard astronaut Tom Hagerty taking a jog through by his New Orleans hometown. He's recently lost his wife, and his daughter is an addict, leaving him with his only loyal companion, his dog Apollo. He's not going to be part of the team that's set to go to Mars but has trained the chosen team and worked with them closely. Sean Penn brings all the experience as a veteran actor (as well as a ripped, impressive body) to the table and his performance is top notch through the season.
Tom and the crew are employees of Vista, a private company headed by Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone), that conducts space launches in cooperation with NASA. Within the first twenty minutes of the first episode, the mission to Mars suffers a major setback (to say what that setback is would be giving away a spoiler, but let’s just say that the show doesn't take much time to drop the first hair-raiser). Now, Vista has to work hard to mount a new, flawless expedition, and Tom is at the forefront. The clock is ticking, and the whole world is watching.
Although the setup might prepare audiences for a story to unfold ala 'The Martian' or 'Interstellar,' and turn into a sci-fi exploration story. But that’s not what happens here. Instead, the show begins focusing in on each of its cast of characters – members of the mission, people working behind the scenes, and all their extended families. This is a very human drama, where all the science fiction tech takes a backseat to the story.
Any good space exploration story is ultimately carried forward by the depth of the characters, and 'The First' spends an elaborate amount of time doing just that. A lot of time is spent getting to know the flight team and their families, and Tom is temporarily set aside to favor less familiar perspectives.
There’s Kayla Price (LisaGay Hamilton), a second-in-command who explores issues of discrimination without overtly calling it out; there’s Sadie (Hannah Ware), an astronaut fighting to make the final cut who had to adjust her entire life just to try out. And then there’s Tom’s daughter, Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron), who already lost one parent and now uses her painting to cope with losing another.
And then, of course, there's Laz Ingram. On a different kind of show, the C.E.O. of Vista would be a potentially sinister figure. But 'The First' remains endlessly optimistic about the thrust toward new frontiers, and is also idealistic about corporate imperialism, painting Ingram as not an icy, calculative businesswoman, but a leader who’s focused on what’s best for her team, her company, and her planet.
One of the many good things 'The First' has going for it is its entirely episodic nature. Unlike so many modern streaming shows, which play out like 10-hour movies broken up into chunks, 'The First' wisely lets almost every single episode stand on its own. The first season is like an anthology of short stories, with each episode holding its own with its own comprehensive narrative.
Adding more sheen to the whole experience is the Adam Stone's impressive cinematography, which captures the essence of the show, be it the expansive shots of the mission launch that brings the big-screen feel to TV, the soft-touches to the chic futuristic world-building, or the intimate, single-camera shots of the show's characters at their most private moments. Colin Stetson's superb score adds even more gravity to the show, with his masterful arrangements, rife with flourishing horns and swelling strings.
All said and done, the show's brave departure from the usual sci-fi tropes and its deliberate pace that keeps the show grounded to Earth (literally and metaphorically) is what makes 'The First' stand out. Its strength is to generate empathy in the viewer. Where most sci-fi works play to the dreams of being an astronaut that many of us had as children, 'The First' is as close as it gets to feeling the real-life pressures, struggles, and joys of being an actual astronaut.
Science fiction as a genre, although often set in the future, is often used as a mirror of the present. 'The First' succeeds in doing that, but not by portraying the washed out socio-political landscape of the modern times. Instead, it offers us hope -- no matter how fragile it seems at times -- that if we as humans come together in a truly honest cause, we can surprise ourselves as we have done time and time again throughout history.
'The First' premieres Friday, September 14 on Hulu.