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Should You Watch … Hulu’s ‘The First’?

The Sean Penn space show centers on an expedition to Mars, but it’s the characters’ more grounded concerns that make it worthwhile

Hulu/Ringer illustration

Have you ever asked yourself why there are so many shows and movies about space? Why Armageddon and Deep Impact came out within the span of two months? Why this fall we’re shooting Ryan Gosling and Robert Pattinson into its vast expanse for very different reasons? The answer is simple. Space—and space travel—is a clever backdrop to explore the human condition and what drives our innate ambition to venture into the great unknown. A space setting also frequently toes the line between the gorgeous, the sublime, and the terrifying. Space, in fewer words, is cool.

This is all essential to the freshman season of Hulu’s The First, though the show comes with what could be a fatal catch. The hook of the new series from House of Cards creator Beau Willimon is the story of the first humans to step on and explore Mars in the 2030s. However, Season 1’s eight episodes are (quite literally) grounded and more concerned with the baggage the astronauts are carrying with them prior to their unprecedented journey. If you watched the trailer for the series and felt there was a disproportionate amount of shots of people chatting in conference rooms, that’s because almost the entire season takes place on Earth.

The series is less Interstellar or The Martian, and more This Is Space. But by taking small, yet crucial steps in character-driven storytelling before making the giant leap toward Mars, The First develops a level of emotional investment that calls to mind Apollo 13.

At the center of the story is legendary astronaut Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn, in his first starring role on a TV series), one of the few humans who walked on the moon, and a surprise exclusion from those chosen to embark on the Mars trip. Suffice it to say, the first mission doesn’t go as planned, and so the Elon Musk–esque head of the private aerospace program, Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone), is compelled to give Hagerty another chance to reach for the stars. Along with following Hagerty and his daughter Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron), who is a recovering addict, The First expounds on the motivations for the other astronauts on the second mission and the emotional toll facing them and their families.

It’s hard to overstate just how wild and weighty these risks feel—at one point, the astronauts are given a one-in-five chance of not returning to Earth—and a lot of that has to do with The First’s realism, and how little it asks the viewer to suspend their disbelief. That the series takes place some 15-odd years in the future means there aren’t any incomprehensible tech gadgets untethered from our reality; the biggest innovation is that people now put on a functioning equivalent of Google Glass to watch stuff. A trip to Mars is also something that could reasonably happen in our lifetimes—Interstellar, on the other hand, asked the viewer to follow Matthew McConaughey through an intergalactic wormhole and fall through a tesseract.

That said, Willimon does make some bizarre choices, working unnecessarily hard to imbue The First with added meaning. I promise the following is true: Alongside the main narrative, The First frequently returns to shots of a craggly man fixing an old telephone, while a narrator (presumably the same phone enthusiast) with a heavy Southern drawl rambles about how we should dare to dream. The scenes play like McConaughey’s beguiling Lincoln commercials, and no amount of Googling will help you understand why they exist.

The unneeded surreal flourishes notwithstanding, the best way to understand what The First wants to accomplish is when the Hagerty-led astronauts finally, briefly, begin their journey toward Mars. In lieu of multiple shots of the rocket passing through the atmosphere, most of the action is relayed through a headset—the camera focusing on the cascade of emotions from a loved one on the ground as each step is narrated for them. It’s a truly affecting, subversive way to depict a shuttle launch, and an assurance that no matter how far we follow the astronauts on their trip to Mars, the most important concerns are still earthbound. Perhaps the biggest miracle of The First isn’t that humans are traveling farther in our solar system than ever before, but that everything back on the ground is the show’s most essential and compelling ingredient.

Should You Watch It? The Sean Penn space show is great, and space lovers and TV generalists alike ought to consider giving it a look.

If I Wanted to Watch One Episode to Get a Taste, Which Should It Be? “Two Portraits,” the fifth episode of the season, jumps through time exploring the dynamic between Hagerty and his daughter, Denise’s slide toward addiction, and the tragic circumstances explaining why the mother is no longer in the picture. Bring tissues.

Who Is The First’s MVP? Anna Jacoby-Heron, a relative unknown actress, is a revelation as Denise and steals several scenes from Sean Penn. This is one name to keep an eye on.