Friday, September 14, 2018

REVIEW: Hulu's 'The First' Lets Sean Penn and Its Storytelling Wallow Too Much in Season 1

Hulu's The First debuted its entire 8-episode first season on Friday, September 14. This post will feature brief reviews of each episode of the 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.

101. "Separation"
Written by Beau Willimon and directed by Agnieszka Holland

The drama spends the first half of the premiere setting up the launch of the first mission to colonize Mars. It's played as this remarkable achievement for science and the next step forward for the human race. Laz Ingram is proud of the tireless work her team has done to make this possible. Tom Hagerty is watching from home and is filled with some resentment for being removed from the team as leader. It's all being played as this very proud and stunning moment. So of course, it pivots to tragedy with the explosion of the rocket. The five member crew all perish and everyone has to quickly spring into action to pick up the pieces of a public disaster. Laz remains removed and in briefings about what kind of malfunction could have happened that caused this. She is protective of her team and makes sure that they are given the motivational speech to know that they must rely on each other now more than ever. Meanwhile, Tom is the one who rushes to comfort the families of the men and women who have just died. As such, the show is presenting these two characters as wildly differently and prone to clashes. He is empathetic while she believes her own reactions and feelings are irrelevant. Sure, it's clear that she has some self-destruction by frequently asking her car to run her over at top speed even though it can never actually do so. That's an attempt for her to feel something. Meanwhile, Tom returns home to a stoned daughter who already seems like a problematic addition to this narrative. But this premiere is all about that core destruction. It spends its time propping up this launch with everyone on the crew being wished good luck for this life-changing mission. It's then slow to re-establish itself. It takes things sensibly in making sure that this lose of life isn't immediately paved over. It means something. It has to otherwise there would be no point in starting the season this way. It just means this advancement for humanity will take longer than what most were expecting. Remembering that along the way will be just as important even though it's unclear what the direction will be for the future. Some more personality to the characters would be much appreciated. This feels like the first act of a movie that is intentionally playing out very slowly. That may just be the way Beau Willimon tells his stories in this medium even though it can become monotonous very quickly. B-

102. "What's Needed"
Written by Beau Willimon and directed by Agnieszka Holland

At first, it seems like the show is going to be focusing entirely on the many ways in which this mission went awry and how the company handles it. This episode is still very much focused on the aftermath of the destruction from the premiere. Of course, some time has passed as well. The engineers have figured out what happened. It was human error. The lucky coin everyone kissed on the way up fell out of a pocket and was flung across the ship. It essentially became a bullet in a highly pressurized area. That's what led to the explosion. It's difficult for everyone to accept that. It once again stirs up the debate of why Mars colonization is so important in the first place. This episode establishes that the year is 2031. A war is still being fought overseas. And yet, that makes more sense than soldiers risking their lives trying to explore space. Tom needs to explain that reasoning while still offering his sympathies about the importance of this mission and those who are carrying the risk. He is reaching out to the still grieving families. He is able to fix so much. He connects with the world in a way that Laz doesn't even though she's just as passionate about this mission. She's determined to launch again during the next available window. It just means going to the government for more funding. That also prompts an interesting conversation about the best project for these funds. Is it better to finance this program or the one that will make a difference in small town USA? Those are the debates that are waging on. Of course, it's always inevitable that the mission will proceed once more. In fact, this hour seems focused on getting the money for the next mission while getting Tom back onboard as commander. It's just lackluster that it takes two episodes before the show really gets to what it's core mission actually is for the season. That's lame and really forced. Why is it important to know that Tom was the commander until he was removed by Laz? The audience doesn't even know why that happened yet either. Instead, it's all being framed as the two of them as parents who want to do the right thing by their children even though they are still chasing their ambitions as well. Tom believes he and Denise can make this work. And yet, that's clearly the answer he is hoping for just like she wanted the studio space to start painting again. C

103. "Cycles"
Written by Carla Ching and directed by Daniel Sackheim

This episode sets out to introduce more of the characters who will comprise the central mission to Mars. They have to bond together as a unit as they prepare for this grand expedition. They will be spending two years together up in space. And now, a tough decision has to be made about who to cut now that Tom is joining as commander. Of course, the most sympathetic character throughout this story is Kayla. She has appeared in the first two episodes. But this is really the episode where she steps up and demands to be noticed. Sure, she doesn't break chain of command. That is still very important to her. She just vents her frustrations to her wife about her opinion no longer being valued and the command being taken away from her by a straight white guy without her being notified. It would be so powerful if a gay woman of color was the one leading this mission. That visual would resonate in a way that shows that the future is much brighter than what we always imagine it. Instead, the show is stuck in the familiar melodrama of Tom's life. He refuses to move on from his wife's death. He doesn't even want to talk about that tragedy. Meanwhile, he has a daughter who has her own issues and who he doesn't really know how to connect with. Every time she brings up her mother he shuts down. They have good memories about her. But so far, Tom remains a rigid middle-aged guy who is used to getting things the way he wants. It's not a bold or imaginative character which really makes the entire show feel like a missed opportunity. Sadie, Aiko and Fletcher are also introduced but have no real personalities to speak of at the moment. Plus, it's clear that the show is choosing to value set up over an eight episode season instead of making sure that each individual hour has the spark to keep the audience engaged. Perhaps that's because Beau Willimon has only done television for streaming services that release all of the episodes at once. He just instinctively trusts that the audience will binge all the way through. And yet, there definitely needs to be more forward momentum in order to convince the audience that it's a worthy journey to continue investing in. Right now, the surprise comes from LisaGay Hamilton's performance. That hints at more depth to come from the supporting characters. The buildup is just too slow without a whole lot of payoff after three episodes. C

104. "Where Life Is"
Written by AJ Marechal and directed by Daniel Sackheim

Everything about this show has been very understated so far. The show chose to remain grounded on Earth this season playing everything for the melodrama of trying to get this mission off the ground after a disastrous start. And now, the pressure only intensifies further with the breakdown of the machine already on Mars that is necessary to get the ship back to Earth. It's enough for the President to have harsh words about the wasteful spending of this program. The crew is still a year out from launch. But at the pace the show is going, it won't take that much longer before Tom and company are ready for lift off. Of course, it's also important to get everyone working on the same team in these months. Sadie is still an important member of the crew even though she is no longer one of the astronauts. Sure, it seems inevitable that she will still join the mission because everyone can see just how smart and capable she is. She just doesn't have the same experience as Fletcher who is really struggling with the science of it all. Her drama about holding out hope despite the pain it is causing her husband who wants a child is also painful. She is trying to figure out what she wants. She's the happiest in the brief moment of discovering life during her Antarctica trip. That's the moment where she truly comes alive. Similarly, Kayla has to actually voice her concerns. For so long, she has kept her feelings bottled up because she deemed them irrelevant. They would only be a distraction from the mission. And now, she lashes out at Laz who breaks chain of command because she wants an honest conversation. Of course, that courtesy wasn't given to Kayla when Tom signed on to replace her as commander of this mission. As such, she has always felt like her race and sexual identity were being used against her. It affords the show ample opportunity to say that these characters aren't biased in that way. And yes, it does make more sense that they want Tom because he's a recognizable celebrity for the program. But Laz is still keeping her eyes on everyone on the crew because she is under so much pressure right now. All of this seems on the verge of falling apart. However, everything also seems to be fixed while drinking a beer at a bar. That's how Tom and Kayla bond and show their respect for each other. Those honest conversations are important. It highlights the very procedural nature of the lives everyone wants to be living. That just clashes with those who have idealistic ways of viewing their lives. Plus, it doesn't always make for the most satisfying drama on a television show. C+

105. "Two Portraits"
Written by Francesca Sloane and directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven

Up until this point, the show has only teased why Tom was replaced as commander during the previous launch. He had to be removed by Laz for some reason. And now, the show completely devotes this hour into telling the story of the Hagerty family. It's easily the most compelling episode so far. That's unexpected because this family drama has been the more conventional aspect of the show. But it highlights how giving enough focus and specificity to the story it is still able to resonate with viewers. At the start of the episode, the audience probably wouldn't care if Denise relapsed. It would just be seen as a plot point to keep Tom grounded once more. But by the end of the episode when Denise does shoot up again, it's tragic and heartbreaking because the audience has seen the pain of this family simply not being able to understand each other. Denise and Diane are similar beyond their artistry. They both appear to suffer from the same disease. They have these really depressive moments. It's not explained but the audience can understand how Tom's long absences have left him completely out of his family's lives. He doesn't know how sad Diane was capable of getting. He has only romanticized their relationship. That's even more so after her death. The show lays it out frankly in saying that this was suicide. It's painful for Denise because she was there watching her mother walk into the river and be unable to save her. That's the moment that really sent her life down a tragic path. Sure, she was able to attend college in New York like she always dreamed. But it wasn't long before the cycle kept repeating of bad boyfriends and stints in rehab. Tom just wanted her to get better. He refused to admit that his personal life was compromising his commitments to the mission with Laz. He always believed that Denise had been fixed. Then, he grew angry upon seeing her high again. That's such a horrifying and stark moment. It's him hitting a low point in his life as well. He hits his head, smashes his hand into glass and falls down the stairs. He's powerless to save her. Even now when she has some semblance of a life again, he doesn't know exactly what's going on with her. She believed she had a handling on her disease. But all it takes is being reminded of her mother for her to relapse. As such, the cycle repeats and it has the potential of changing so much. But it's tragic because no one knows how to break it or if it even can be broken and fixed. B

106. "Collisions"
Written by Julian Breece and directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven

Is history repeating itself? That's the question on everyone's mind when they have to race to take care of Denise. She is safe and loved. But it also seems likely that Tom and Denise are toxic for each other despite the love they have as a family. They want to protect each other. They encourage each other's dreams. And yet, they also force the other to frequently remember the tragic past they share. Denise thinking about her father leaving for the mission only brings back thoughts of her mother and the loneliness she felt that pushed her to suicide. Tom thinking about his daughter's overdose only fills him with fear that it is only inevitable that she'll kill herself too. It's only a matter of time before he gets that call. Should he be waiting around trying to make a difference hoping that things will get better? Or should he fulfill his adventurous spirit by embarking on the mission? Laz needs answers. She can't have too many problems coming up at once just as scrutiny on the project intensifies. She is trying to be honest even though she isn't a compassionate person who understands the difficulties that the Hagerty family is dealing with. All she can do is offer a different perspective and a place for Denise. In fact, it wouldn't be surprising if Denise just moved into Laz's guest house while trying to rebuild her life. Tom says that he would absolutely give up command of the mission again if he knew that it would make a difference in Denise's life. But he doesn't have that certainty in any aspect of this decision. He doesn't know what to change to ensure that things will improve for Denise. He doesn't know if his impact actually means anything. Denise struggles talking about why she relapsed. It's just something that happened because of her memories about her mother. Her not being able to explain things is agonizing to her and proves that she still has so much progress she needs to make. She has to continue working the program and cope with the family dynamics that have always defined her life. But that's especially difficult to do when everyone is demanding immediate answers. The show has fully devoted to this family melodrama heading into its climatic moments. Big decisions are coming. It's just going to be fascinating to see what fuels Tom's decision. Will he go or not is the big question. It looms over everything else. In fact, this story has basically overshadowed everything else - even though this episode also features a noteworthy appearance from Bill Camp. B-

107. "The Choice"
Written by Christal Henry and directed by Ariel Kleiman

This episode is all about the crew of five astronauts making the decision to go on the mission despite the increased risks that it will end with their deaths. As such, they are all going home to their families and talking it over. That also makes this a bit of a hit-or-miss episode because some stories have been featured very prominent while others have just gotten minor flashes of substance. It's meaningful for Tom and Kayla because they have been the leaders of this crew. Their personal lives have been explored. It's so difficult as Denise tells her father that she needs distance in order to work on her own life and issues. They can't perpetually be living in this fear of the worst possible situation that could happen to the other. It's brutal but it gets Tom to sign. It's just as moving when Kayla has to talk things over with her wife. They have completed their house. And now, there is the fear that they will never be able to live their lives in it. But the beauty is still present as they pick up the tools and continue the work together. Those are both solid story beats. So is the excitement that comes from trying to repair the machine already on Mars only for the jumpstart to end in disaster. All of these have been important to the season so far. And yet, the remainder of the crew haven't really been fleshed out as characters. It always seemed inevitable that Sadie would find her way onto the mission somehow. It just happens because of a convenient plot device that pops up for the first time here with Matteo. He hasn't been a major character at all. And now, he has a ruptured ear drum that is taking too long to heal. As such, he has to pull himself from the mission. That feels mostly like the show reassembling its team before the big launch in order for there to be a dramatic shakeup. Meanwhile, time isn't even spent with Fletcher and his family because he has never been seen with a personal life. That means he has to explain here that the crew are his family because his real one is full of pricks. And finally, Aiko has to accept that moving her mother into an assisted living facility is the best thing for her. There is the full possibility that she will die by the time she returns to Earth from the mission. The family has to come to that understanding before moving on to the paper being signed. And yet, that's not all that satisfying or moving a moment because it was a plot point only briefly hinted at in one episode previously. So now, everything is set up for launch even with the increased stakes that it will all end in disaster once more. C+

108. "Near and Far"
Written by Francesca Sloane & Beau Willimon and directed by Ariel Kleiman

So much of this season was focused on the personal cost of scientific breakthroughs. The astronauts leaving for this mission to Mars are leaving behind families for the next two years. They do so without any certainty that they will return. It's a great source for drama and emotions. And yes, things are very moving and intense during that launch sequence. It's so effectively well drawn because it's focusing on the procedural aspects of the science. The show revels in being able to show just how precise all of this really is while being in complete awe that humanity has figured it all out. It's marvelous to watch. Things don't end in tragedy like they did in the premiere. The structure of the finale almost mirrors what happened in the first episode. But here, there is no human error that leads to destruction. Instead, it's a successful launch with the team making it to the docking station and heading towards Mars. They complete what they set out to do. They got into orbit. That is an achievement worth celebrating. It's not something that should be taken for granted. The show always aims to remind the audience of the vast sacrifices that come from these advancements to the human race. Now, the southern voiceover and imagery of old technology that has since faded away has never been a very effective part of the season. It was an attempt at artful metaphors that mostly just fell flat. Here, it mostly amounts to a number of visuals and sounds that showcase the many achievements that have led to this next step forward for humanity. As such, the mysterious voiceover guy heads into the bright unknown just like our team of astronauts. And yet, it's such a strange and infuriating detail because it's time that could have been better spent on some of the other characters who needed more development this season. Right now, it's great to see Tom and Kayla smiling as they embark on this journey together while the rest of the crew is cracking jokes. The chemistry is there for them to thrive in space. Plus, it's just as meaningful to see the connections back on Earth. Denise is already able to send a video to Tom on the space station. Sure, it highlights all of the conflicting feelings that they must have for each other. But it also represents a step forward for both of them. Tom is heading into the great unknown as an explorer. Meanwhile, Denise and Laz are left behind on Earth marveling at this achievement while also trying to keep their lives moving forward as well. That grounded aspect really defined the show this season. Even though it never got to Mars, it's clear that this will all still have to remain relevant and important should the show be brought back by Hulu for an additional season. B-