The gist of Hulu's The First is that it's really hard for human beings to launch themselves into space. The gist of this review is that it's really hard to watch the The First.
The series is the first show from Beau Willimon after he broke in Netflix with House of Cards (he left after Season 4), and is about the astronauts involved in the inaugural manned mission to Mars sometime in 2030-something. Interesting stuff! Except it's actually about the astronauts preparing themselves emotionally to go to Mars, which will disappoint anyone looking for a big-budget drama about terraforming the red planet or even the complex math that goes into sending a tin can full of men and women 33 million miles into the air.
Because The First is about these Mars explorers getting ready for space and doesn't actually show them in space, you will not see Mars except when Mission Control takes a peek at their video monitors at the robot that's already up there. I want to be very clear about this so you know what you're getting into if you go ahead and watch this: Despite its logline, The First is NOT about space travel.
Instead, The First is a character study about sacrifice and what astronauts leave behind when they partake in space travel, and it will beat you over the head with the problems that tether them to the Earth. For Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn), it's his wife (Melissa George) and his troubled daughter Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron). For others it's a mother with dementia (which isn't handled well at all), a wife who is scared of the dangers of the trip or something else. Whatever it is, there isn't a feeling that they're running away to Mars to escape their problems, it's that these problems need to be resolved before they can feel comfortable rocketing off into space. Kind of like the ending of Lost, I guess.
Most of the series is dedicated to unraveling the mess that is Tom and Denise's relationship in overwrought scenes, including trips to rehab and saving her from junkie dens, with trust issues and blame flying about as Tom faces the idea of being gone for more than seven years to go make history. Denise is Homeland's Dana Brody 2.0, a wild youngster who lashes out and serves the story as an impediment to her father. Episodes are devoted to the fracture in their relationship and the emotion is dialed up to a million before we even have a reason to care about their relationship, and non-linear storytelling doesn't help straighten things out. It's rough.
The other character who gets a lot of run is Laz (Natascha McElhone), whose company is spearheading the efforts to Mars. She's not spacebound, but her problems are steep as well; NASA and the government aren't keen on going to Mars after a previous attempt went very badly, and she's got PR issues to deal with before she can start the countdown. I held out hope that we'd reach space in the second and third hours, but those were spent repairing the program's damaged public reputation. Not quite as exciting as landing on a planet no human has ever been to before, but The First is instead happy to focus on the red tape of space-travel business. Other micro-arcs are handed over to the side characters to give their lives some importance, but the doses are so small that they just splatter against the screen instead of becoming worthwhile stories to engage in.
There's an interesting idea here when talking about what astronauts leave when they go on these types of missions, but it's good for maybe an hour of entertainment or could add lots of depth to the challenges of actually being in space via flashbacks. In what seems like interminable fashion, The First stretches the astronauts' personal issues over eight full episodes to the point you'll want to see all the characters launched into space or a brick wall. The problem here is execution; connecting to the characters is a chore because they're so morose and the show — when not waxing about the stars — is so dour. The daunting task ahead of these astronauts beats them down to emotional wrecks and it rubs off on their loved ones for conflict that erupts before you even remember their names. It's drama crafted for television rather than drama displayed on television, adding so much weight to the experience that the show can't move.
On top of all this, the problems are all enhanced by the presentation. The visual storytelling comes from the Terrence Malick (Tree of Life, Days of Heaven) school of abstract cinema, which is a bold move for anyone not named Terrence Malick. For example: There's a whole episode dedicated to the visual theme of cicadas, for some reason, with close shots of cicadas molting and mating probably symbolizing rebirth or something, while voiceover discusses what makes those with the irresistible pull toward outer space so different from the rest of us. There's a flashback-heavy episode that's mostly shot against an all-black background, giving a real sense that we're immersed into the recesses of the mind. And while that effect is cool and effective on its own, after the cicadas, it just feels like the next film school trick The First wants to show off. It's like watching an incongruous eight-hour art-house movie or like bingeing a film-school festival that used the same actors for all its entries, but it doesn't offer enough theme or evoke the curiousness to care in order to justify its pretentiousness, something Malick is able to pull off in his films. (The score is excellent, however.)
I'll admit that yeah, I thought these people were going to space when I first heard about The First, and was excited to go to Mars with them. I watched it and waited for it. And waited. Call me basic, but I'm a simple man who likes shows about space. And while it's too easy to complain that a space show doesn't go to space, it's still fair, isn't it? Especially when space travel is just a backdrop for what could have been a show about anything. Going to space is a grandiose idea, but The First could have told the story it really wanted to tell — relationships take work, you have to fix your own life before you can move on, cicadas are annoying — with a group of bus drivers (no offense, bus drivers).
By the time the astronauts do get into space late in the series, after the finances are secured and the government approves and the astronauts pass their tests and some technology is fixed and their relationships are in an emotional place where it's OK for them to go to space, it doesn't feel like a triumph for mankind at all. It feels like what should have happened six episodes ago.
The First begins streaming Friday, Sept. 14 on Hulu.