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Review: Hulu's drama series 'The First' stars Sean Penn as an astronaut whose greatest challenges are right here on earth

Review: Hulu's drama series 'The First' stars Sean Penn as an astronaut whose greatest challenges are right here on earth
Sean Penn and LisaGay Hamilton in a scene from the new Hulu space drama "The First." (Alan Markfield / Hulu)

Hulu’s eight-part drama “The First” begins as a space exploration drama on its way to Mars, but the show, like the mission it depicts, never quite lifts off the ground.

The British-American production by “House of Cards” Beau Willimon and starring Sean Penn has all the right ingredients of another breakthrough drama series from the streaming service that gave us “The Handmaid’s Tale.” But it becomes so entangled in the human drama of its troubled characters here on Earth that it loses momentum soon after blast off.

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“The First” is more about the cost of scientific exploration rather than the exploration itself, and the currency is both monetary and emotional.

The series, available in its entirety Friday, follows Dr. Thomas Hagerty (Penn), a veteran astronaut who’s been to the moon and back. He, like the series, lives in a not-so-distant future where VR glasses are the norm, cars drive by voice command and homes are semi-automated.

We meet the widower and single father at what appears to be another low period in his life. He was chosen to command the first mission to colonize Mars only to be relieved of his duty by the head of the project, Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone). She’s an Elon Musk-type whose scientific exploration operation Vista relies partly on government funding. We don’t learn in the first three episodes reviewed here why she pulled Hagerty from the mission, but it is clear that he’s a rebel who moonwalks to his own tune.

Hagerty watches from his home in New Orleans as the astronaut team he assembled for the operation are killed when the rocket explodes shortly after liftoff. It’s a riveting series start, and it all happens inside of episode one.

It’s clear from the outset, however, that “The First” isn’t the next action-packed step in film and TV’s reach for the stars, or ratings. Unlike “Apollo 13” or Netflix’s “Mission to Mars,” the cerebral Hulu series is more interested in the emotional and monetary price of space travel rather than the interstellar drama of incoming asteroids, oxygen leaks, alien stowaways, etc.

The impact of the failed mission has scarred the families of the astronauts and the public who watched the rocket explode in real time, but it’s also called into question the validity of such risky ventures. Are they vanity projects of Musk types or sacrifices for the greater good?

There are several scenes in which the embattled Vista corporation argues its case before Congress. They explain why space exploration is critical to human advancement while senators argue that funding and energy is better spent here on Earth for things such as education. Set our sights on a new planet, or fix the planet we’re on? That is the question.

The problem with “The First,” however, is not the divisive debate. It’s the slow-paced examination of all the personal dramas attached to the Mars program.

Hagerty is a brooding, conflicted figure who lost his wife and is trying not to lose his daughter, recovering addict Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron). She is still grappling with her mother’s death while her internalizing father avoids the subject at all costs.

Meanwhile, Ingram has forfeited her emotions and relationships with her kids in pursuit of bigger, better technological advancements. She and Hagerty clash — it’s her corporate drive and capitalistic instincts versus his love affair with space and humanity.

That dynamic underpins their search for a new team to man another launch, and now she wants Hagerty back in as commander. For viewers, it means that the final frontier of space will have to wait. This series is a journey through every other character’s personal sub-plot and back story, and it’s no trip to the stars.

Astronaut Aiko Hakari (Keiko Agena) will leave behind her family and a mother with Alzheimer’s if that rocket ever leaves the launchpad. Kayla Price (LisaGay Hamilton) has conflicts with Hagerty and her own fraught past that keep her awake at night.

Viewers will spend lots of time hearing about the characters’ problems over dinners, business meetings and on the sidelines of a karaoke get-together. If only they’d spent more time in the training module, or even those grueling exercises through the Louisiana swamps.

“The First” is a beautiful and haunting sensory experience thanks to imagery by cinematography Adam Stone and music by Colin Stetson. But the meandering series can also feel navel-gazing and pretentious thanks to intermittent, spoken-word narration and weird interludes about the cicada’s lifespan, or something. There’s also the out-of-character bohemian lifestyle that disciplined astronaut Hagerty leads: He was married to a tattoo artist and lives in an arty loft space. His daughter listens to Perfume Genius … on vinyl.

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As for the mission to Mars: What mission? The faraway planet never gets any closer as “The First” dives deeper and deeper into galaxies’ worth of human strife here on Earth.

‘The First’

Where: Hulu

When: Any time, starting Friday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

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