You’d think a show about space exploration would be at least somewhat thrilling and wondrous, but Hulu’s astronaut drama The First (premiering September 14), from House of Cards creator Beau Willimon, makes going into space seem like a grim, depressing prospect. The astronauts preparing for the first manned mission to Mars are all depressed and miserable, and the show is similarly downbeat, spending its time on emotional anguish and recriminations—when it’s not getting bogged down in technical jargon and tedious political negotiations.
The first episode features the accidental deaths of the entire initial mission’s crew just after takeoff, and things don’t get much more hopeful from there, as former mission commander Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn) returns to lead a new crew in a second attempt to make it to Mars. Tom left the crew to take care of his drug-addict daughter Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron), and their tense relationship dominates Tom’s storylines, including an entire episode devoted to maudlin, almost impressionistic flashbacks about Tom’s past with Denise and with his late wife Diane (Melissa George).
Although Tom is the central character, his crewmates all have their own overwrought emotional arcs to deal with, including marital troubles, family obligations and crises of confidence, but the storytelling is so choppy that the character development only comes in fits and starts. Each of the eight episodes takes place months after the previous one, keeping the narrative disjointed and uneven. Some developments get quickly disregarded in the time jumps, while others drag out endlessly, seemingly stuck in place over months at a time. The storytelling can be maddeningly slow, even as it often feels like the show is ignoring important plot points. There’s an entire multi-episode plot about the efforts to, essentially, turn off a key piece of equipment and turn it back on again.
The procedural aspects of space travel can be fascinating, as Ridley Scott’s film version of The Martian demonstrated, and the stakes are always high for anyone leaving Earth, as The First makes very clear in its opening episode. The characters are constantly bemoaning how difficult it is for them to leave their families behind and prepare themselves mentally for a potentially life-threatening mission, but unlike The Martian, which made its stakes obvious and immediate, The First almost completely avoids suspense and excitement, dialing down any potential for heightened action or races against time.