Kudos to The First for not doing anything that you might expect a series like this to do. Created and overseen by Beau Willimon (House of Cards), this account of an attempt to colonize Mars is jointly produced by Hulu and Britain’s Channel Four, and while it doesn’t lack for spectacular visuals, in the end it’s an intimate story about a group of astronauts and their families struggling through the messy business of living. Everything ultimately leads toward the mission (which will presumably be covered in detail if The First gets renewed for another season). But for now, the series is mainly concerned with the emotional interiors of its characters, to the point where all the spacesuits, rockets, and elaborate computer simulations seem like a science-fiction answer to the surgical scrubs, cop uniforms, and bespoke lawyer suits that you see in earthbound workplace dramas.
The story is set only slightly in the future: the year 2030, which looks not too different from our time, save for minor touches like a VR swipe-screens that seem to hang in the air, and voice-activated cars that sound as if they’re powered by electricity instead of petrol. The story begins with an early attempt at the mission ending in misery and failure; a new group is brought in under the supervision of astronaut Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn, pumped up and craggy-faced), the 13th person to set foot on the moon, and a man who was supposed to be on the previous mission but got pulled at the last minute for reasons not yet explored. The crew all have internal, political conflicts that will need to be dealt with. Sadie Hewitt (Hannah Ware) is married to a writer, Ollie (Patrick Kennedy), who wants to have children with her and is growing increasingly frustrated by her statements that the time just isn’t right; she finds herself attracted to a fellow-astronaut, Nick Fletcher (James Ransome, Ziggy from The Wire), who compliments her on all the things she’s proud of and seems to really get her. Kayla Price (LisaGay Hamilton) is an African-American lesbian who rightly resents being put in charge of the mission only to have Tom step back in and oversee it. She’s not wrong to think that it’s partly a matter of optics: As a white, straight man, Tom looks more like what astronauts are “supposed” to look like, which is why he’s become, in the words of Hagerty’s boss Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone), “the face of the mission.”
Laz, fortunately, is no cardboard suit. Willimon & Co. make sure that whenever she squares off against another character, whether it’s Tom or the president of the United States (played by Jeannie Berlin, a scene stealer from HBO’s The Night Of), she’s never reduced to a crusader or a foil; this is the kind of series where characters you don’t particularly like are allowed to make valid points, and outwardly charming characters can be self-serving or wrongheaded. Laz is getting it from all sides: She’s trying to solve the problems that defeated the last crew, while balancing the immediate technical demands of the new mission with bureaucratic challenges. The Mars expedition is funded through a public-private partnership that forces Laz to answer to two sets of masters, and the flow of money is constantly being affected by political and economic factors beyond her control. (McElhone plays the role in her own British accent, and this seems to free her up to create an uncompromising but ultimately sympathetic character, like Kerry Weaver on ER).
As overseen by Willimon and a thoughtful crew of writers and directors (including the great Agnieszka Holland and Daniel Sackheim, one of the MVPs of The Americans), The First is a rare TV drama that tries to make its points through image and sound whenever possible, rather than have characters just walk onscreen and spit out reams of exposition that tell you what you’re supposed to take away from a scene or episode. Although all of the main players are articulate, and not at all shy about talking to each other when something’s gnawing at them, the show explores their problems by watching them do things, whether it’s training for zero-gravity underwater or while suspended from wires, or having a messy argument about some bit of family business they’ve been tiptoeing around for years. Very often, you learn more about characters from watching their faces as they talk than from listening to their words, which, in the manner of real talk, are loaded with unexamined assumptions and often create more problems than they solve.
The jagged heart of the story is Tom’s relationship with his teenage daughter Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron), a waitress and gifted painter who’s struggling with a drug problem. Tom is a single father whose wife, Diane (Melissa George, glimpsed in flashbacks and fantasy visions), is no longer in the picture. The First takes its sweet time telling you what became of Denise’s tattoo-artist mother, and it’s to the show’s credit that when you finally get the details in episode five, it feels as if The First wasn’t delaying resolution to create cheap suspense, but because reliving those events was almost as painful for the storytellers as it was for the characters. Penn, who came up as a brilliant but often fussy Method performer, seems to have shifted into a minimalist vein in middle age, and it serves him well here, particularly when Tom struggles to hang labels on his feelings and speak to his daughter in a constructive way. Jacoby-Heron, though, is the show’s breakout performer, conveying minute tremors of emotion with her eyes, face, and hands (one of which is often pictured in close-up holding a paintbrush). She has that rare gift of seeming to feel the story’s vibrations. The First capitalizes on her talent by building many long scenes around her where she’s silently thinking or reacting in close-up, including a drunken party where Denise flirts with an attractive young man, and a harrowing sequence where she is unable to reach her mother when she’s at her lowest.
Not all of the series’ risks pay off, and the overall approach is so counterintuitive that it’s bound to frustrate audiences who expected more of a problem-solving space mission story along the lines of Apollo 13 or The Martian; some negative reviews have already reached for space-race phrases like “fails to achieve liftoff” and “stays stuck on the launchpad.” But once you get used to The First’s peculiar rhythms, it weaves a spell that’s somewhere between a ’90s John Wells drama (think ER or The West Wing) and a slowed-down TV answer to Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life especially). Some of the most striking sections are unabashedly philosophical, to the point where the show is bound to be accused of popular entertainment’s cardinal sin, “pretension” — as when a grieving young woman’s tentative emergence from her shell is intercut with shots of cicadas emerging from the ground and shedding their skins. (It’s an image that doesn’t come out of nowhere, though: The show takes place mainly in and around New Orleans, cicada noises are a part of the soundtrack, and the insects are discussed in dialogue.) Colin Stetson’s score, Adam Stone’s cinematography, and the editing credited to Jeffrey M. Werner, Jonathan Alberts, and Lisa Bromwell all push against expectations while keeping things simple. Stetson’s score, in particular, often consists of melodies constructed of fewer than a dozen notes, most of them in a major key, and it’s used so sparingly that when it comes in, typically during emotionally difficult moments for the characters, it’s like a friend who shows up when things are at their darkest and says, “Don’t worry, we’re going to get through this.”
It’s a bit strange knowing you can’t wholeheartedly recommend a show to people who you’d think would be its ideal audience — fans of technically realistic space adventures that are either drawn from history or set so close to the present day that they barely qualify as science fiction — but congrats to The First for being, well, the first series to create such a conundrum. It’s not what I thought it was going to be, and I have no idea how it’ll be received or whether it’ll get additional seasons. But it moved and impressed me to the point where I didn’t particularly care if a given scene or story line was “working” or not. It has a pioneering spirit.