“The First,” Hulu’s slow-going and disappointingly dreary astronaut drama (premiering Friday), stars Sean Penn as Tom Hagerty, the troubled but determined commander of the first manned mission to Mars. We’re in the early 2030s, and the trip is a public/private collaboration between NASA and a particularly driven yet personally frosty tech titan named Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone).
“The First” opens with the worst, as a happy crew of astronauts boards the Providence at a Louisiana launchpad and blasts off for their historic voyage, intending to rendezvous with an orbiter that will take them on a seven-month trip to Mars. A minute after takeoff, the Providence explodes — reminiscent in every way of the 1986 Challenger disaster, down to the plumes of smoke from wayward boosters and the horrified family members watching from the bleacher stands below.
Back to the drawing board. While a budget-conscious congresswoman uses the disaster as an opportunity to propose scrubbing the costly Mars program, Ingram has just under two years to prepare her backup crew for the next mathematically available launch window.
She turns to Hagerty to helm the next trip. He was supposed to be on the doomed mission, but had to bow out after his wife (Melissa George) committed suicide and his college-age daughter, Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron), went into rehab with a serious drug addiction — the miseries of which we see in redundant flashback loops over several episodes. Hagerty’s Earthbound problems were just too much to ignore, but now he has a second chance.
His appointment means that the backup crew’s other commander, Kayla Price (LisaGay Hamilton), is demoted to second-in-command. After a life committing herself to following military orders, she stoically accepts the fact that the Mars mission will no longer be commanded by a black, gay woman. Hamilton gives an especially good performance in this regard, summoning the sense of duty and wounded pride that accompanies this significant slight.
Penn’s performance, on the other hand, is an understated mush of grief and remorse, heavy as a brick and about as entertaining. Neither the actor nor the character suggest the kind of personality type one might associate with space-going pioneers. He doesn’t seem ready to pilot a small Cessna, much less a rocket to Mars.
Speaking of which, a viewer will soon get the idea that this is a show about going to Mars with little to no Mars actually in it. Created by Beau Willimon (“House of Cards”), with initial episodes gorgeously and forlornly directed by Agnieszka Holland (“In Darkness”), “The First” is very much an interior drama about people problems and flawed relationships, with a few engineering issues thrown in to remind us of the ultimate prize.
So, what you’re saying is, the rocket takes off in the third episode, right?
Okay, but surely by the fourth or fifth episode we’re totally on our way to Mars, right? Already landed, perhaps? There are only eight episodes, after all.
Yeah . . . about that.
If your response to “The First” is to keep shouting “Get on with it, already!,” then this may not be the mission-to-Mars story for you. The series is low on excitement, because it is obsessed with the feelings of leaving home and loved ones behind in such a profound way. Everything gets an layer or two of added pain, including the engineering problems, the funding issues and Ingram’s inability to reconcile her goal with the human cost. The quest to depict a space mission from an emotional perspective is at times as impressive as all those movies and TV shows that relied purely on scientific innovations and nerd heroics.
Only near the very end does “The First” strap in for another go, after viewers have endured far too much narrative flourish. It’s easy to see what Willimon is going for — to give shape and heart to what is essentially a story of science and bureaucracy. It’s also easy to see the mistake in the formula: Empathy does not equal velocity.
The First (eight episodes) available for streaming Friday on Hulu.