Space, as the saying goes, is the final frontier. We’ve crossed the oceans and explored their depths. We’ve discovered new lands and set up camp in the hottest, coldest, and highest places on Earth. Antarctica, the Sahara, Everest. The skies. The moon. Humans are a species which, as Stephen Dunn once wrote, often punctuate with “that maker of promises, the colon: next, next, next, it says, God bless it.” Artificial intelligence. Lab-grown meat. The mute function on Twitter. We innovate because we can, or must. But as the outward boundaries of our world get pushed farther and farther out, our human limitations remain the same. We love people and hurt them. We make the wrong choices. We’re selfish. We’re cruel. We fail, and keep failing.
Everything listed above (save the mute function, maybe) is top-notch dramatic fodder, which is part of what makes The First such a frustrating experience. Created by House Of Cards helmer Beau Willimon, the series concerns itself with a group of people who intend to conduct the first manned mission to Mars, an effort undertaken in the near future that’s more about discovery and exploration than global warming and the future of the human race (though those things matter, too). The astronauts working toward this goal—played by Sean Penn, LisaGay Hamilton, Keiko Agena, James Ransone, Hannah Ware, and Rey Lucas—spend eight long episodes preparing, despite setback after setback, to launch, and as such, the series centers on survival not on the Red Planet, but on Earth. What is it like to be consumed by a job in which death is a given circumstance? How does it affect those in your life when having loved ones is a liability? How do you explain that to anyone? How do you survive it?
And how on earth do you take responsibility for it all? That’s one of the questions that fuels the story of Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone), the mind and spine of Vista, the partially government-funded organization that’s sending those rockets into the air. The most surprising thing about The First—which is, after all, Sean Penn’s first television series—is that its most compelling stories uniformly belong to the women. All are good, but after a shaky first couple outings, it’s Laz who serves as the series’ standout. In a less thoughtful show, Laz—an emotionally distant, often blunt person who might be called cold or unfeeling—might play as a generic, detached genius, a part, perhaps not written for a man, but certainly not recognizably female. But Laz’s experience is undeniably feminine, her struggles not coming from men who underestimate her, but from entering a world in which she knows she’s “supposed” to grieve, lead, mother, and make decisions a certain way. It’s not how she’s perceived by men, but how she perceives herself—and in a duet episode with The Looming Tower’s Bill Camp as a skeptical journalist, McElhone explores that question with a portrait that’s among the most complex and unexpected this year.
McElhone’s isn’t the only nuanced performance, nor Laz the only multifaceted woman. As an astronaut whose command is revoked when a tragedy necessitates a former commander’s return, LisaGay Hamilton does more with half a sentence than other actors get to do in an hour. Keiko Agena and Hannah Ware are provided less meat than McElhone and Hamilton, but both give restrained, thoughtful, emotionally rich performances. And as Denise, the struggling daughter of Commander Tom Hagerty (Penn) and his troubled wife, Diane (Melissa George), the tremendous Anna Jacoby-Heron handles what feels like an unending series of heavy, tragic scenes with great care and vulnerability.
Those tragedies unspool very, very gradually, and therein lies part of what keeps The First from soaring. There’s much to appreciate about The First’s patience—it takes a long time to get anybody in a rocket, and the series cares much more about the process and the people than it does about the planet—but the heaviness of the personal storylines, and Hagerty’s in particular, makes it difficult to simply float along the winding rivers Willimon has carved in the landscape. Penn gives a fine, even excellent performance at points, but garments can be rent only so many times. It’s a muscular, volatile turn that nonetheless begins to blend together, and neither Penn’s intensity nor Jacoby-Heron’s gentle specificity can quite keep the show’s most volatile thread from knotting up the works. An hour focused primarily on Denise and Diane comes closest to feeling like something of a kind with The First, addressing gut-churning tragedy with a grim frankness that makes it all the more painful, and the strongest scenes between father and daughter emerge in the season’s final hours. A second season, should one arrive, might be able to strike a better balance.
One could hope for the same from the show’s excellent, but sometimes frustrating, cinematography, editing, and more lyrical moments of storytelling. Without a doubt, directors Agnieszka Holland, Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Ariel Kleiman, and Daniel Sackheim have created one of the year’s best-looking shows—the colors by turns rich and menacing, the world painted in wonder, the memories captured in a familiar but forbidding haze. A cicada grows in a fever, stretching its wings, and the series seems to pulse with life, but six, nine, 12 cicadas later and the magic begins to wear thin.
The same is especially true for a series of what you might call narrative interludes, in which an often faceless figure tinkers with old-fashioned telephones and prepares to make calls we never hear, all while a drawling voice speculates on the nature of life, death, space, our destinies, the list goes on. Maybe he’s the human race. Maybe he’s the guy who, in the inaugural episode, dropped a quarter and changed countless lives. Maybe he’s just a phone maker. It’s never explained, and that alone is far from damning—could be good, actually. But the spell that The First casts is not so powerful that the series can sustain it indefinitely. It doesn’t play as essential, neither emotionally nor narratively. It plays as capital-P Profound, and that’s fine once, but not endlessly.
In the end, almost none of those problems are insurmountable, and The First is far from a failure. But it’s that feeling of endlessness, of shapelessness, that makes this collection of mostly interesting parts uninspiring. Space may be endless. Life can be shapeless. Both can be endlessly compelling, but when approached with even a little carelessness, things can go horribly wrong. This mission doesn’t end in tears, or waste. But when it’s reached its end, it’s likely you’ll walk away and take no part of it with you. A jaunt to the stars may be forever memorable, but there’s something about The First that makes it disappointingly easy to forget.