Space travel is inherently dramatic. The risk, exceptionalism, exploration of the unknown, it’s all gripping, fascinating stuff. The First and creator Beau Willimon (House of Cards) know this; a stirring score and faux-profound narrator with a Louisiana drawl try to conjure the feelings that awe-inspiring astronaut flicks like Apollo 13 invoke, it’s just a shame that The First is never quite able to blast off.
Set in the near-future, The First stars Sean Penn in his first regular television role as Tom Hagerty, the veteran astronaut and former commander of the first mission to colonize Mars. Tom must watch at home while the mission readies for liftoff, as the head of the project, Laz Ingram, an Elon Musk-type played by Natascha McElhone, has pulled him from the mission due to his family issues at home. Tom is a widower and his young adult daughter Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron) is a recovering addict still working through the loss of her mother. When an extreme set-back forces Laz and her company Vista to start from square one, Tom is tapped once again to lead the mission.
If you’re in search of an action-packed space race full of Mars terraforming, then you’ll be disappointed by The First. Instead of soaring amongst the stars, the series is more interested in exploring the things that keep us Earth bound. There are lots of big ideas and themes touched on in The First about the selfishness that comes with ambition, what happens when our dreams die, and whether sacrifice and our resources are worth spending on space exploration when energy and funding could be better spent on Earthly matters. However, throughout the season’s eight episodes, all watched for review, The First really only goes deep enough on the idea of the costs of following personal goals to the detriment of our loved ones, explored through the relationship between Tom and Denise.
Let’s be blunt: The First is a father-daughter story masquerading as a space drama, but it’s a thoughtful and well-acted father-daughter story at least. Penn has starred in forgettable films since his turn in Terrance Malik’s The Tree of Life in 2011 and has spent the rest of his time releasing embarrassing books and buddying up to El Chapo, so it’s exciting to see him flex genuine movie star charisma. His performance is unshowy and understated yet explodes when necessary. Still, Penn is blown out of the water by Jacoby-Heron, who delivers a dynamic, raw-nerve of a performance as Denise, taking everything one day at a time while trying to reconcile the fact that her father will be abandoning her yet again.
Denise takes center stage in the season’s best episode “Two Paintings.” An ambitious episode that races through the relationship of Tom and his troubled wife, Denise’s childhood, and the pain that Tom’s previous mission to the moon caused, it’s a tour de force that plays with memory, illness, addiction and grief. Using disorienting time-jumps and almost black box theater techniques, it stands out for substance and style and is one of the year’s very best episodes of television, painting a complete portrait of a broken family.
The space side of things is fair more officious then rocket-fueled. Willimon appears to slip back into his comfort zone dealing with bureaucratic red tape, hearings, whipping votes, and prickly journalists as Laz tries to secure the government funding necessary for their Mars trip. Hurdles are introduced regularly, but then waved away by awkward time jumps that really are a detriment to the show’s pacing. McElhone plays Laz as a cold and distant genius that’s possibly on the spectrum. It’s not a role that gives her a ton of room to show off, but by the season end I felt a weird appreciation for Laz. She’s a determined leader and is one of the show’s many diverse representations of strong, layered women. However, several of the other characters have stories introduced that just aren’t given the room to grow into something truly compelling.
Really, The First feels like you could cut out everything but Tom, Denise, and Laz’s stories and you’d have a tight 2-2.5 hour movie that explores the cost of dedication in pursuit of a lofty goal. Eight episodes should feel breezy and yet it still feels like too many here. Still, there are genuinely interesting ideas hit upon here that keep me from panning this show outright and it’s possible the show could grow into something more if given another season. But something tells me the expectations for this show, based on its marketing, versus what the show actually is could hurt its chances with viewers. I was promised Mars, but all I got was something decidedly more grounded.
Nick Harley is a tortured Cleveland sports fan, thinks Douglas Sirk would have made a killer Batman movie, Spider-Man should be a big-budget HBO series, and Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson should direct a script written by one another. For more thoughts like these, read Nick’s work here at Den of Geek or follow him on Twitter.