There’s a point in the first stretch of episodes of Hulu’s drama series The First when you may have a thought you’ve had once or twice before: Can we just send Sean Penn to Mars already?
As a pitch, The First is an interesting, if perhaps puzzling endeavor. We’ve had movies and TV series about humans on Mars before. Some are realistic—National Geographic’s Mars, in some respects The Martian—and some are sci-fi ludicrous, like Doom, Red Planet, or John Carter. But The First isn’t about what it’s like on Mars, or the fight for survival on the planet. It’s about the process of getting there.
It’s a series that’s all countdown, but no launch.
This isn’t a show about Sean Penn on Mars. Or Sean Penn traveling through space to Mars. It’s Sean Penn getting ready just to board the spaceship.
Imagine if ER was all about George Clooney and Noah Wyle on their way to the hospital. Chicago Fire, but they’re just driving to the fire. Law & Order, but it’s the lawyers researching their case briefs. We’re being slightly snarky—this is not literally Sean Penn driving to work—but it is nearly impossible to pin down what this show is.
It’s not exactly about the strenuous training that goes into becoming an astronaut, though there are brief touches on that. (There’s this thing Penn’s character does where he swims—looking buff as hell—at the bottom of the pool, army crawling with weights, that’s incredibly impressive and is revisited many, many times throughout the series.)
It does not explain the science behind space flight and what it might take to reach Mars, though there’s a random third of an episode partway through the series that centers around a code-cracking emergency.
It’s a little bit about politics, both within the crew and between lawmakers. Or maybe we’re just on high alert for semblances of that kind of soap opera because the series is created by Beau Willimon, the man behind House of Cards.
We would say, then, that The First would benefit most by casting aside all its Mars-tied marketing, including that stunning trailer touting its gorgeous space travel special effects, and instead sell it as a character study.
Sean Penn plays Tom Haggerty, the commander of this teased-not-shown first mission to Mars and a widowed father struggling with addiction. It’s significantly less sexy to promote this show not as the story of a pioneering trip to Mars but as one man torn between an obligation to his daughter and, uh, space, but we suppose that’s really what this show is at heart. The problem: That’s very boring.
More, the series so superficially develops the relationship between Haggerty and his daughter and, until a melodramatic standalone fifth episode, provides so little backstory about their family trauma that it’s hard to know you’re even supposed to be invested. Why would you when so much time is spent planning to go to Mars? It’s Mars.
The stakes couldn’t be higher, and yet there’s so little dramatic tension in the episodes we screened we wondered if we were missing something.
When Sean Penn, a two-time Oscar winner notoriously choosy about projects and pretentious about his craft to the point of near-insufferability, decides to star in his first TV series, and that series is about Mars, you expect something grand, lofty, provocative: not corny, but the next frontier, as far as television is concerned.
What you don’t expect is for him to star in what is essentially an office drama that happens to take place at a space center, with the narrative sophistication of a one-and-done broadcast drama series, just with a bigger budget.
The show kicks off with a twist, both to anyone who’s seen the trailer or read this far in this review. Haggerty is actually fired from his command on the mission to Mars by the aerospace magnate Laz Ingram (a lovely-as-always Natascha McElhone, essentially playing an Elon Musk-like figure except tolerable) in charge of the whole mission. Instead we watch as a team headed by a new commander (played by Norbert Leo Butz) buckles up to launch, their families and all the world watching as they set all systems go.
Of course, this is a show about Sean Penn leading the first human mission to Mars, not Norbert Leo Butz, so you’re pretty sure Butz and friends are going to die. They do. They are killed by a lucky coin they brought on the spacecraft that accidentally falls into a chamber, causing the whole vehicle to explode. To their credit, everyone on the show is as flabbergasted by that as you are right now.
Laz must then appeal for more money from Congress to fund a second mission. She drafts Haggerty, embittered as he might be after being kicked off the mission but, you know, at least still alive to help, and asks him to command the second attempt.
Basically, The First is the first act of every movie we’ve seen about space travel, be it Apollo 13, Contact, what have you, except that it is drawn out over eight episodes and that’s the whole series. There’s no second act. There’s no space!
Of course, we’ve only talked about the Mars aspect thus far. Don’t forget, this is about Sean Penn being torn between Mars and family. And he’s not the only one!
There is understandably a lot more time given to his fraught relationship with his daughter and how the death of his wife and her mother has affected them and his commitment to the space program. But the narrative also follows each of the crew members home for fleeting subplots about their respective family lives. Each is more diverting and distracting than emotionally engrossing.
It’s confusing when characters you barely know start acting wildly; you can’t tell if it’s out of character because you don’t even know the characters. In The First, there are dramatic marital decisions, apparently monumental sexual trysts, and fiery professional blow-ups. There’s addiction, depression, and the toll of loss. We get the idea: Getting ready to go to Mars is stressful! This is how that stress is manifesting in these people’s personal lives. But the characters are all so thinly drawn that you’re never sure what, if anything, to make of that discord.
This all might seem like a pile-on, or even an insinuation that the show is patently bad. It’s not. It’s shot beautifully, is occasionally engagingly weird, and is well-acted by Penn and McElhone, especially. The issue is that it’s just fine. It’s the kind of show you could quickly watch every episode of—Hulu will release all eight episodes at once—and then completely forget you ever saw. It makes that little of an emotional impression, and does nothing particularly remarkable, revolutionary, or resonant with its storytelling.
This is the story of a tortured man and a team of people embarking on an impossible quest, the greatest adventure which humankind may ever see. It would be nice to have any desire at all to go with them.
All episodes of The First will be available on Hulu September 14.