Thursday, September 13, 2018

TV REVIEW: Hulu's 'The First'

Hulu will premiere its new original drama series The First on Friday, September 14 with its entire 8-episode first season. The drama stars Sean Penn, Natascha McElhone, LisaGay Hamilton, Hannah Ware, Keiko Agena, Rey Lucas, James Ransone, Anna Jacoby-Heron, Brian Lee Franklin, Oded Fehr, Annie Parisse, Melissa George and Jeannie Berlin.

Read on for my thoughts on the astronaut drama after screening its entire season.

Hulu's new drama The First is the second television series created by Beau Willimon - following Netflix's political drama House of Cards. Once more, he has teamed with a multiple Academy Award winning actor making his first foray into television. This time it is Sean Penn making his series regular debut. Plus, Hulu will be releasing the entire eight-episode first season at once in a binge. That is a very wise decision that the executives made. Willimon's storytelling very much recognizes the novelization of television. He's less interested in making individual episodes then telling a story across eight hours. Of course, that's what makes it so surprising when the best episode of the season - the fifth - is a self-contained hour that focuses on the past trauma of a very specific family in the show. Overall though, this is a show that benefits from that release strategy. All of the episodes need to be available to the potential audience because there is absolutely no reason for people to keep with the show if it was released in a weekly method. The creative team was absolutely writing with the confidence that it would be released this way as well. Sure, there are act breaks because there are still commercials on Hulu for those who opt for the cheaper subscription plan. Those are jarring moments because the action just fades to black instead of just cutting to the next corner of the story. But each episode isn't all that self-contained. They just bleed right into the other even though the actual story of the piece takes place over two years with massive jumps in time occurring in between the episodes. These are some of the things to be on the lookout for watching this show. Of course, that may not matter all that much because despite the amount of time spent in a specific world the show never fully gets off the ground.

The First has been billed as an examination of the first mission to explore and potentially colonize Mars. A space epic set in the near future that imagines the possibilities of how the world could expand for humanity. And yet, it's only a very minor spoiler to say that the crew never gets to Mars in the first season. The closest the show gets to the red planet is seeing video feed from the machine already on the surface recording the environment and temperatures. That's it. The rest of the time is spent on the ground on Earth as the team of astronauts simply prepare for this mission. They are led by Penn's Tom Hagerty, a man who has already been to the moon and left his footprints there. Tom is a charming celebrity who is able to empathize with people and their concerns about the dangers of space travel. He's also a man torn apart in his personal life due to the tragic death of his wife, Diane (Melissa George) and the subsequent addiction problems of his daughter, Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron). Now, everyone involved in this story is acting admirably and with so much passion. However, Tom's family drama is so absolutely conventional. It's yet another drama centering around a straight white man in his 50s whose younger wife dies and the details are explained slowly through morose flashbacks. Meanwhile, he is struggling in the present with a problematic child who may constantly be getting in the way of him achieving his dreams. The show commits so fiercely to this storyline. And again, there are strong moments where everyone involved rises to the occasion and moves the audience. It's a consistent story which is more than what some of the other characters get in the first season. But again, it's hardly the idea of what people who signed up for this show were probably expecting.

And yet, that's the hook of The First. It is exploring the personal costs of scientific breakthroughs. Everyone of the astronauts is signing up for a mission that they may not come back from. It's analyzing how these people can risk their lives and put their entire lives on hold for years. This trip to Mars is going to consume two years of their lives when all is said and down. It takes two years of preparation for it as well because they have to wait for everything to align out in space. That's time in which lives and opinions can change. The private company running this program is led by a CEO, Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone), who believes in the importance of this mission but is very cold and calculated as well. She doesn't really know how to connect with people on an emotional level with it even being suspected at one point that she is on the autistic spectrum. Of course, the show still gives her more to do than ABC's Designated Survivor did. It was a big deal when she signed onto this show while starring on that drama - which will also be making the transition into the streaming world next year as well. It's easy to understand why even though the character is purposefully wooden. As the season goes along though, the audience can see all of the nuances that McElhone is bringing to the role. In fact, there are some decisions that she makes that may actually have the audience feeling compassion for her even though she is prioritizing the mission above all else. Sure, Laz is staying on the ground. She is determined to succeed. But that doesn't stop her from being a perfectly capable mother and friend either. That's an important distinction as well. It helps the bond establish between her and Tom without it even taking that sexual turn. Another female character has that responsibility in a story that literally goes nowhere. It all still has to pivot around this decision Tom has to make about leading the first mission to Mars.

But again, the focus seems off because the show is centered around a character and dynamic that has already been seen a million times. Willimon chose to be very inclusive behind-the-scenes of the show establishing a team of female collaborators for the project. Agnieszka Holland, Deniz Gamze Ergüven and Ariel Kleiman ensure that the show has a strong and distinct visual look to it. There are some very well crafted moments that are beautiful to witness or intense to watch. Meanwhile, the ensemble is full of accomplished women being asked to play very smart and unique individuals. LisaGay Hamilton, Hannah Ware and Keiko Agena are also members of the crew heading to Mars. And yet, there are times where it felt like the show would be better served if Hamilton's Kayla Price was the lead character. She is a queer woman of color who was suppose to be the commander of this mission before Tom stepped in. The show does cover the importance of that visual as well and how it makes her feel to be replaced even though she's still on the mission to Mars. It's never something made out of resentment or anger though. In fact, it's actually quite idealistic because the characters are able to sit down and have a civil conversation about it that values the respect they each have for one another. That's inspirational. But there are times where Kayla's melodrama is more interesting than Tom's simply because it's a character who is never in the leadership position when it comes to a mission or show like this. As such, it mostly feels like a missed opportunity even though the show is also telling the audience that everything about it is understood and appreciated.

All of this mostly amounts to a lot of time being spent talking about the beauty and wonder of this achievement without actually following through on it. It takes the entire season to actually get to that point. It's still very technically proficient while highlighting the many ways that the team on the ground is helping those in space achieve excellence and success. But it just feels like too much time wasted without giving the audience a true self of what it is aspiring to do. Instead, it opts to be more artistic by featuring just random cutaways to a mysterious narrator who talks about the beauty and cycles of the world with the dangers of those who wish to push past what is known. It gets annoying so quickly and is a device that is completely unnecessary. It mostly produces montages of beautiful images that have absolutely no connection to what is going on in the main story. Sure, they are pretty to look at but absolutely hollow when used in practice. It all seems like the show is going for something much more metaphorical and artful in order to challenge the audience into believing the scientific wonder of the world. But it mostly just reads as the show getting lost in its own overindulgences and simply not being able to figure out where it is actually trying to do with all of this. There is a lot of strong and watchable work involved here. It's just not as well-articulated as it could have been in a very entertaining way.