The First: A Character-Driven Master Class

The First -- "Separation" - Episode 101
Photo by: Paul Schiraldi/Hulu

When I heard Hulu’s new series The First was about a crew of astronauts that become the first humans on Mars, I imagined it’d be a cross between Ridley Scott’s The Martian starring Matt Damon and Netflix’s recent Lost in Space reboot. That sounds like a fun show, right? Well, I could not have been more wrong. If that’s what you think you’re signing up for… think again.

The First is not so much about the adventure on Mars itself, as it is about the journey to get there. The series takes us behind the scenes and explores how this particular mission affects those closest to the astronauts. Not just commander Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn) but every member of his team. There are eight episodes, all dropping on the streaming service on Friday, September 14, each highlighting a different crew member, as well as visionary aerospace magnate Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone), the Elon Musk of the piece. The cast deliver award-worthy performances, and the production values are right up there with the best feature films. With original shows like The Handmaid’s Tale, The Path, 11.22.63 and Castle Rock, Hulu is proving itself the new HBO. It’s going for quality over quantity, whereas Netflix is churning out as much content as possible, occasionally giving us a diamond in the rough.

Even before I started reviewing television shows, I would research the creative folks involved. I remember reading that Michael Hirst (Elizabeth, The Tudors) was working on a Vikings series. Hirst was reason enough for me to tune-in. Well, that show went on to become a massive success for the History channel. It’s a series I still enjoy to this day, and the writing is as strong in its fifth season as it was at the very start. Although I didn’t stick with House of Cards, creator Beau Willimon impressed me immensely with his writing. He’s another brilliant mind, like Mr. Hirst. Sure, Sean Penn’s involvement sparked my interest, but to me the creators/writers are the true rock stars. It all starts with a great story and boy, does Willimon deliver here.

The First -- "Separation" - Episode 101
Photo by: Paul Schrimaldi/Hulu

At times, House of Cards played like a dark comedy. Francis Underwood’s actions and political machinations were absolutely deplorable. Yet, he somehow managed to become President of the United States. It was a fairly dark take on politics, power and corruption. By contrast, The First revels in its optimism and hope. Hagerty is the polar opposite of Underwood and you know instantly he’s a decent guy. Troubled by something, but still decent at his core. As the series peels back its layers, the writers begin to fill in the blanks providing insight into each character’s history. While it may feel a little disorienting at first, the payoff is totally worth it. I was disappointed to read several reviews that claimed the series dragged and suffered from sluggish pacing. Perhaps those reviewers were expecting the crew to be living on Mars by the third episode. They missed the point. Over the course of eight hours, Willimon makes us fall in love with these people. Warts and all. It’s a deep dive into character. A profound look at our own humanity.

It seems like ages since Academy Award winner Penn starred in a major role. Even more unbelievable is the fact The First is his television debut as a series regular. Sure, the actor played himself on shows like Ellen, Friends, Two and A Half Men, and Family Guy, but that’s not quite the same thing. This series marks his first true leading TV role. Honestly, it didn’t take long for me to remember what an exceptional actor Penn is. In the spirit of keeping this “spoiler-free,” all I will say is the man moved me to tears on more than one occasion. I hope he is recognized for his work on this show, and he deserves any accolades that come his way.

Sadly, I was completely unfamiliar with McElhone, and what a revelation she is. Since I tend to stick to the “sci-fi” genre, I’ve missed out on shows like Californication or Designated Survivor which I’ve heard have showcased her talent. I’m not worried because after playing Laz I’m sure more people will be introduced to this fantastic actor. If Penn’s character is the flawed heart of the series, McElhone is its brilliant mind. Not only does she hold her own against powerhouse Penn, but McElhon’s Laz is the one character that grows the most throughout Season 1. I’ll admit, I didn’t expect where her arc would take her and it was a nice surprise.

Melissa George is quite good as Diane Hagerty, Tom’s wife. However, it’s Anna Jacoby-Heron as Denise – Tom and Diane’s daughter – that has the juiciest part. It’s tough to praise her enough without giving away important plot details. Keep an eye on the young actress, because I have no doubt she is going to do great things.

The First had a budget of roughly $54.6 million dollars and it shows. The sets are incredible, and I’d be a happy camper if I lived in a home like Laz’s. Wow! The visual effects are stunning, and like Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, they never feel like effects shots. The same goes with the technology in the “not so distant” future. Things like self-driving cars and Google Glass-type smart glasses are by no means far-fetched. All the technology is realistic, down to the “Alexa-type” commands for turning on and off the lights or TV set.

The First -- "Cycles" - Episode 103
Photo by: Paul Schiraldi/Hulu

While most futuristic television series these days tend to linger in their gloom and doom. It’s a wonderful change of pace to discover a show like The First, which is at its heart a “glass is half full” viewing experience. I think we need more inspirational television. More stories about heroes that motivate young viewers to reach for the stars. I’ve grown a little tired of dystopian futures where the survivors hunt and mistreat one another. It’s a satisfying change of pace to watch human beings support one another. To have each others backs, you know? Explorers really are the unsung heroes who put themselves in harms way for something greater than themselves. Where would mankind be without the likes of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin or the seven brave souls who made the ultimate sacrifice in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster?

I don’t know if Elon Musk will be the guy that ultimately takes us to Mars, but The First is a peek at what that adventure might look like. The way humanity continues to abuse the Earth, colonizing other planets will be key to our species’ survival.

In closing, The First wasn’t at all what I was expecting, but it turned out to be a million times better. Instead of another typical “sci-fi” show, we get a glimpse behind the curtain at the trials and tribulations of the people that change the world. It was the best eight hours I’ve invested in a TV show in years. I’ve already got my fingers crossed for a second season.

 

Do you plan to check out The First this weekend? If so, what are you most looking forward to? Are you okay with the fact this is about the journey, not the destination? Once you’ve watched, please come back and share your thoughts with me in the comment section.

The complete first season of The First premieres Friday, September 14 on Hulu.

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