When a new show from Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights and Parenthood) debuts, seasoned TV fans know there will be emotional buttons pushed, big life issues examined, and tears shed, and the producer's new Netflix drama Away is no exception to this rule. In a weird confluence of events, the show is dropping during a worldwide pandemic, which makes for oddly good timing for a show that examines feelings of isolation, loss, separation, and anxiety.
Away, which follows international crew of astronauts on a mission to Mars, is methodically crafted, and the cast includes actors who manage to portray extremely emotional moments with quiet elegance. In addition to Hilary Swank as Commander Emma Green, it has Josh Charles as Emma's husband and NASA scientist/almost-astronaut Matt Green, and Ato Essandoh, Mark Ivanir, Ray Panthaki, and Vivian Wu as the international space crew.
As the episodes unfold, we learn the backstories of each astronaut and their individual paths to this particular Mars mission. Surprisingly, none of the stories are predictable and there are twists thrown in from the start of the series. First and foremost, the night before Emma is about to lead the crew into space, her husband Matt has a medical emergency. Emma seriously thinks of staying home to tend to him and their 15 year old daughter Lexi (Talitha Eliana Bateman) because the mission has her away from Earth for three years, and there's no guarantee they'll even make it to Mars and back. Swank gives an excellent performance as Emma goes through intense emotional and physical challenges, and she is very believable as the tenacious, stubborn, and devoted crew leader.
Vivian Wu gives a delicate but no less powerful performance as scientist Wang Lu. She has a complicated personal story that pays off in a satisfying way. Mark Ivanir's Misha is a veteran cosmonaut who has spent more time in space than anyone else. When this mission takes an unexpected turn, he handles a severe personal issue with the help of his crewmates. Ray Panthaki's Ram is the crew doctor and his backstory and source of inspiration revolves around personal loss. And Ato Essandoh's Kwesi is a botanist who is there to plant and cultivate gardens on Mars. Essandoh brings a beautiful, genteel quality to Kwesi, and makes him someone you want to befriend.
As we learn about this extraordinarily talented crew, the writers carefully delineate how their skills complement each other and how their brainpower works collectively. This creates moments of discovery for the characters that are lovely to witness as viewers track the mission's progress and root for their success as they combat perpetual danger.
Watching the first ten-episode season of Away, the stress of the characters being part of something so vitally important to nations around the world, as well as to their individual families, packs a real wallop. Family is also a huge theme of the series; specifically, what is the value of your life if you don't have children? Not everyone on the mission is a parent and it's interesting and refreshing to see a show openly tackle that topic and examine the question of whether the lives of single people are worth less than that of people who have children and a better half waiting at home.
The overarching theme of isolation-related anxiety is eerily well-timed during this time of pandemic anxiety when even the simplest tasks can seem overwhelming, much less a task as gigantic as a space voyage to Mars. While the show's writers didn't know the series would drop during a worldwide pandemic, the timing can only help viewers identify with what the crew is going through during the long stretch of time away from the comforts of home. Again, the series has a surprising amount of tender, quiet moments that pack serious emotional punch as the crew and their loved ones deal with the ripple effects of trying to stay close when they are literally millions of miles apart.
Away doles out the intense emotional moments liberally over the ten episodes. Keep the tissues handy, and remember, there's no place like home.
TV Guide Rating: 4/5
Away will be released Friday, Sept. 4 on Netflix.