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TV Review: The First

SYNOPSIS:  Sean Penn leads an ensemble cast in this near-future drama about a crew of astronauts attempting to become the first humans on Mars. Under the direction of visionary aerospace magnate Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone), the crew contends with peril and personal sacrifice as they undertake the greatest pioneering feat in human history.

The First, The First TV Review, TV Review, Drama, Science Fiction, Hulu, Sean Penn, Natascha McElhonne

REVIEW: When the initial teaser was relased for Hulu's ambitious series The First, it looked more like a meditative drama along the lines of Terence Malick's THE TREE OF LIFE rather than something more straightforward like creator Beau Willimon's previous hit, House of Cards. Luckily, this eight episode series is the perfect combination of both as it explores the first manned mission to Mars in a very near future as well as the tumultuous lives of the crew set for the historic voyage. Led by Sean Penn and Natascha McElhonne, The First is not really what the trailer makes it out to be. Going in, I was expecting to see a story in the vein of THE RIGHT STUFF, APOLLO 13, or even HIDDEN FIGURES. Instead, while the Mars mission is the central story of The First, this series is much more about the characters and their personal journeys. 

Having seen all eight episodes of The First, I can already tell that this is going to be a series that people either love or hate. Very deliberately paced, each episode spends more time with the stress surrounding the preparation and journey of the Providence space crew than in seeing the actual mission to Mars. Without revealing the twist delivered in the first episode that alters the direction of the series, The First is not an action packed thriller nor is it a straight-forward look at the science behind space exploration. This is a series about what it means to be a human being striving for what many consider the impossible and how that changes the relationships you are involved in. Yes, there are significant parts of each episode that explore the building and testing of the Providence spacecraft and the training of the astronauts, but they are secondary to the primary stories being told here.

While the cast is full of talented actors like LisaGay Hamilton, Hannah Ware, Keiko Agena, Rey Lucas, James Ransone, Anna Jacoby-Heron, Brian Lee Franklin and Oded Fehr, this series belongs equally to Sean Penn and Natascha McElhonne. While we get episodes that focus on Hamilton and Ware as the pressure of the impending space mission forces them to decide between the pursuit of history or their marriages, Penn and McElhonne are the stars and deservedly so. Penn, in his first performance as the lead of a television series, delivers an awards-worthy performance as the embattled leader of the Mars team who is also dealing with a personal tragedy that cost him a previous mission. McElhonne is the head of Vista, the private corporation funding the Mars mission, whose cold and socially awkward demeanor keeps her at a distance from Tom Hagerty (Penn). The two veteran actors share the most screen time and deliver what could be some of the best work of their career. 

Series creator Beau Willimon knows about writing damaged characters and everyone in this series has some sort of nagging stress in their life which amplifes the question as to whether they are prepared to journey from our planet on what could be a one way trip. Each episode opens with a card indicating how many months until the launch of the spacecraft followed by a blend of political and technical challenges for the crew to overcome. But, the majority of this story is about Tom Hagerty and the tenuous relationship with his daughter. Both Sean Penn and Anna Jacoby-Heron, who plays his daughter, expose themselves emotionally which gives an edge to Penn's performance the likes we have not seen since MYSTIC RIVER. Penn is able to go from understated to powerfully raw within a single scene which is impressive to see and lends more creedence to how esteemed of an actor he truly is.

The First, The First TV Review, TV Review, Drama, Science Fiction, Hulu, Sean Penn, Natascha McElhonne

There is a lyrical quality to each episode that is established with lingering shots of Earth from space, landscapes around the location shoot in New Orleans, and a mysterious recurring motif of an old rotary pay phone being repaired. The comparisons to the work fo Terence Malick are justified as the multiple directors, led by Oscar nominated filmmaker Agnieszka Holland, often juxtapose the straight forward narrative with much more artistic images and a haunting score. The production values are top notch with the Earthbound and space footage on par with some feature film efforts. With a budget reportedly over $50 million, this is more a long form movie than a typical TV show. If there are any faults with The First, it falls on the writing which clearly favors both Sean Penn and Natascha McElhonne. While everyone else gets their own subplots as part of the main story, they all feel incomplete and rushed, leaving me feeling as if there was more to tell that we did not get to see.

The First plays very much like an event series and could easily stop with this run and never follow up to tell us what happens next. Like a great novel or feature film, The First leaves you wanting more. Hulu and co-producers Channel 4 have not announced any plans for a second season of The First and part of me doesn't want there to be one. Not because it isn't good but because it is. The First is everything we want out of a prestige drama and, if not for some inconsistencies in the balance of the character stories told, is damn near perfect. Like I said before, this series is going to divide audiences, but you cannot walk away and not feel emotionally invested in what you saw on screen. By the end of The First, you will care as much about the life or death stakes of this mission as the families and friends watching the historic launch. That alone makes this worth your time.

The First premieres all eight episodes September 14th on Hulu.

Source: JoBlo.com

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