You don’t have to be enthralled with the technical complexity and logistics involved in sending a crewed mission to Mars to be captivated by The First, but it helps. The new series from creator Beau Willimon (House of Cards) and starring Sean Penn as astronaut Tom Hagerty is at first a sneakily dry and technical series interested in the nuts and bolts and feats of engineering needed to send a crew of human beings to Earth’s dusty, red neighbor. Amidst the almost solemn formality of the mission itself, though, it’s not long before The First delivers an affecting humanistic tenor to its story, one that emphasizes the depth and breadth of human ambition and also the potential emotional cost of that ceaseless drive.
The series begins with what should be the end of the story: the launch of the rocket and crew intended for the months-long journey through space to reach Mars. The crew is made up of some notable faces, like Bloodline’s Norbert Leo Butz, so it is somewhat shocking (though, because Sean Penn is not among them, not entirely unexpected) when the rocket disintegrates before leaving the Earth’s atmosphere. It’s a moment that plays off the memory of real-life events, in particular the Challenger or the Columbia upon re-entry, but it doesn’t feel gratuitous or opportunistic. Instead, it grounds The First in a known reality, one in which the dangers and the cost of space travel are readily foregrounded in the minds of the series’ characters as well as its viewers.
That cost makes up the majority of The First’s first half, as the series explores the idea of a price and a toll, two separate but equally important parts measured in terms of human lives and billions of dollars. Willimon weighs both concerns with a pair of characters on either side of Penn’s Hagerty; namely, Natscha McElhone’s Laz Ingram, the CEO of Vista, the corporation spearheading the mission, and Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron), Tom’s troubled teen daughter with whom he’s recently begun rebuilding a relationship, following the death of his wife, Diane (Melissa George). The two perspectives create a push and pull with regard to the show’s drama, allowing The First an opportunity to better examine what’s driving its characters and what, if anything, could potentially keep them from attaining their specific wants.
For some of the show’s characters, those wants are fairly cut and dry, with an emphasis on dry. There is a bureaucratic element to The First that’s in keeping with some of Willimon’s previous works, like the play Farragut North or its film version, The Ides of March, and certainly his biggest profile project, Netflix’s soon-to-be-ending House of Cards. Following the disastrous failed launch, McElhone’s Laz and Vista, the company she works for, are inundated with not only potential lawsuits from family members of the deceased astronauts, but they are also called to task by a governmental committee responding in part to growing public dissent arguing the financial expense of a single mission — let alone a dubious do-over — is far too great and that the funds required would be better spent on people in need on Earth.
It’s an interesting tangent for the series take; one that sees the soaring heights of human ambition tethered by slow-moving governmental processes and seemingly ubiquitous red tape. That potential delay requires some late-night negotiations from Tom, who, despite being removed from the first mission by Laz (for reasons that are made clearer as the series moves forward), still has some clout as an American hero. Equally surprising is the low-key effort Tom makes in testifying before the committee with regard to the fate of the mission it holds in its hands.
That muted exchange is one example of how The First sometimes fascinatingly, sometimes frustratingly bucks convention. Whereas an impassioned sermon from Tom is expected by Laz, as well as the viewer, the series eschews such easily earned sentiment — in part because Laz already delivered what is ostensibly the same speech only to be shot down by the committee — as a way of illustrating Tom’s willingness to forgo the mission that means so much to him, and the differences in his and Laz’s approach to the same problem. It's an interesting glimpse into the way Tom and Las see things, and because so much of how The First communicates emotion is by having its characters internalize it, which means some quiet, static, and grounded moments, which seem almost antithetical to a television series about a mission to Mars, the audience ends up learning a great deal about how they think and how they see the world around them.
But The First is more than Sean Penn and Natascha McElhone daydreaming or hashing out the logistics of an interstellar mulligan. It also balances that side of its narrative with nonchalant depictions of science fiction-y elements, like new but plausible technology, as well as doubling down on the human element by exploring Tom and Denise's grief over their loss. With regard to the former, the series goes to great lengths to approximate the progression of technology in 14 years’ time, casually offering things like Tom’s smart home, his electric pickup truck, some cool holographic imaging technology, or the ubiquitous wearable phone everyone seems to be using. Though the last one makes sense in terms of the requirements of a television series filled with characters who need to communicate verbally with one another, it’s perhaps the least believable and unlikely piece of future tech seen on the show. We can send a crewed mission to Mars but we'll never relieve people of their dependence on text messaging as a preferred form of communication.
Thankfully, The First is a strong and compelling enough drama to overcome the picking of such nits. The series also boasts a strong supporting cast featuring roles for LisaGay Hamilton (The Practice), Oded Fehr (The Mummy), as well as James Ransone (Low Winter Sun) and Hannah Ware (Boss) as a pair of astronauts on Tom's mission. They all get solid screen time as the eight-episode season moves toward is inevitable conclusion. But while The First delivers on its observation of human ambition, it also tells a touching drama about family and love and loss that helps keep the series grounded even while it’s literally shooting for the stars.
The First season 1 is currently streaming on Hulu.