The First

Created by: Beau Willimon

2 out of 5

The First’s depiction of the somber march toward a Mars expedition, in some 2030+ year, is watchable.  Sean Penn is the chosen astronaut crew’s commander, and does his acting diligence of gravitating between patient and stern leadering and fractured father figure, attempting to manage his drug-addiction-recovering daughter’s health, and his own mental stability post the death of his wife, while keeping his team focused on the looming task at hand.  Natascha McElhone offers a tricky balance as the on-the-spectrum CEO of Vista – the company in charge of the launch – initially coming across as all business before bit-by-bit exposing her humanity.  And each of the astronauts in turn, as well as Sean’s daughter, played by Anna Jacoby-Heron, get their chances to do similar juggling acts, with creator Beau Willimon attempting to pursue a step-by-step agenda to this intended Mars achievement while underlining and questioning how much we must sacrifice in order to achieve such things, and whether they should be seen as achievements at all.

But: The First is all kinda bullshit.  It’s bullshit towards its characters, which it will drop in a hot moment once it’s done the job of showing for each that the decision to possibly die in space is a tough one, and it’s bullshit in its procedural aspects, as the science is too lightly and rarely touched on to feel legit, making a big to-do about things that have developed during month long gaps skipped between episodes, and it’s especially bullshit toward its pondering on progress, positing open-ended questions and then falling back on artsy memories of wives passed and drug relapses.

This doesn’t directly make the show un-good: Penn and Jacoby-Heron are a compelling duo on which to focus, and the show _does_ do a good job of making the stakes of space clear; the production values are good, the dialogue (while maybe empty overall) is quality and delivered well; so we’re roped in to watching this process unfold.  But there _are_ surface hints that things are awry: cutaways to an unseen, creepy-quoting voiceover are TV bait – attempts to add intrigue where none exists.  Similarly, the show opens with a failed expedition to the planet (prompting the followup attempt from our featured crew), and the way it’s shot and presented suggests there will be more to this aspect, but after another episode or so, with that fading in to memory, it’s clear this was just a shallow “in” to put a will they / won’t they threat on the new expedition.

In other words, The First has all the dressings of some well-considered, character-invested, hard sci-fi, and it’s presented smoothly and professionally enough to mostly convince us that that has, actually, been the case.  But a nagging feeling of something missing only takes a few moments of contemplation to suss out that it’s actually a swing and a miss on most accounts, short changing plot and character for a romanticized TV-going experience.