Hulu’s ‘The First’ Gets Too Spacey Before Blasting off to Mars

The ads are truly pulling a fast one with “The First.” Billed as an epic drama about humankind’s first trip to Mars, this first season is actually a tedious, meandering drama that takes forever to launch. Space, rockets, insects buzzing around at night, all of it is treated as a metaphor for the usual tales of angst, bad parenting and moody flashbacks. Well shot, at times edited like an inspiring Super Bowl ad, the show falls into a curious trap of pretension. It seeks to be a “serious” show using astronauts, instead of being a good show about the potential of space travel.

The season opens in some near future as the first team headed for Mars prepare to blast off. Sitting in the shadowy corridors of his home, former astronaut Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn), appears haunted by past memories of his deceased wife. At mission control keeping a close eye on the flight is Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone), a focused tech CEO contracted by the government to carry out the expedition. But soon after liftoff the spacecraft explodes, killing the astronauts and causing a national scandal. Meanwhile Hagerty’s rebellious daughter Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron) returns home, drugged out but determined to get clean. Amid the fallout from the flight explosion, there are calls in congress to defund the Mars expedition, and the family of one of the dead astronauts is now suing. Ingram approaches Hagerty, who had become renowned as an astronaut before his wife passed, to testify and help keep support going. Eventually he is asked to command a new mission. As he begins vetting a new team, Hagerty also weighs the consequences of leaving Denise behind for a years-long mission.

“The First” features a lot of stellar talent in its roster, which adds to how curious its results are. It was created by Beau Willimon, the mind behind Netflix’s “House of Cards.” This is a stunning discovery considering “House of Cards” turns politics into a riveting, at times wickedly melodramatic, experience. In “The First” few moments are riveting and much of it feels borrowed from countless other formulas. Buried within episodes are one or two moments of grandeur, such as a flashback of Hagerty doing space station work with colleagues, watching a sunrise above Earth. In another scene he helps a dead astronaut’s parents view through some futuristic glasses the space vistas their son experienced. But for most of the season this is as close as any of the characters get to the subject of space itself. It’s a pity because you can indeed combine human stories with the grander theme of visiting the heavens, as HBO demonstrated in the 90s with the series “From the Earth to the Moon.” In “The First” everything takes a back seat to rather stale plot threads. You know there’s a problem when an entire episode is devoted to a committee hearing, and you realize you would be more entertained by the real thing on CSPAN.

Sean Penn’s Hagerty is the main focus of the season but there is simply not much to this character. He looks somber, acts like the caring, very serious father, but with few insights into what makes him tick. Penn plays the role with his usual gruff, delivering dialogue that is sparse. For at least the first half of the season we never learn how his wife passed away, or how they even got together (she was no astronaut, but a tattoo artist apparently). Denise has issues for sure, but for no other reason than the show requiring a cliché, angst-ridden teen for Hagerty. The fifth episode gives us a flashback/timeline of Hagerty’s marriage, but it is so slow, so sedated, that it is hard to generate dramatic interest.

Everyone else is also presented in fragments. Laz is a walking ghost, seeking funding for a mission she shows little passion for. The astronauts recruited for the trip are mere tools and decoration, with little juice or risk. One of the main team members, Kayla (LisaGay Hamilton), spends an entire episode agonizing over telling a scientist she can’t go on the mission because Hagerty doesn’t think she has instinct. There could have been some real tension here, instead it’s a somber slog, with the director using close ups of bugs and larva as a metaphor for something only he knows. Finally, by the end of the season, Sean Penn is in a space suit and apparently headed for the red planet. If the next season is more interesting, this might have been intended as the first ever, season-long prologue.

“The First” makes the fatal decision of offering a first season with low stakes and little energy. It never feels interested in actually going to Mars. Instead it feels like sitting in the mission control lobby, hoping something will happen.

The First” season one premieres Sept. 14 on Hulu.