Given that The First is about humanity looking to go where only robots and probes have been before and land on Mars, you’d be forgiven for anticipating an exciting blend of space travel, endeavour and just a touch of interpersonal drama. Especially since creator Beau Willimon managed to graft high melodrama onto poisonous politics in House Of Cards.
This is definitely not that sort of series, though. Certainly, there are visits to the futuristic NASA facility, where we follow what happens as personnel changes are made and the situation shifts rapidly when the first crew are tragically killed shortly after launch. The last episode of the season charts the second batch heading out on their attempt.
But make no mistake, this is Sean Penn’s show. The focus of the narrative is his Tom Hagerty, a veteran rocket man who has walked on the Moon and had been involved in training the crew for this new mission. While we do see him figuring out issues with the back-up astronauts and arguing with the Elon Musk-esque money source/visionary Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone), he spends most of his time brooding and trying to reconnect with addict daughter Denise (Anna JacobyHeron). Penn here sometimes seems so low key it’s as if someone has fed him tranquilisers. And he’s such a mass of knotty muscles and bulging veins you’d think he was auditioning to play Guardians Of The Galaxy’s Groot without the aid of CGI.
You can see why this is the sort of role to lure Penn from his usual movie stomping grounds; he gets to build a character over several hours, filling in all the nuances and subtleties that even indie films rarely have the space to cover. And yet Hagerty rarely comes across as a fully fleshed-out person, even with an entire episode dedicated to the turbulent relationship he had with Denise’s mother Diane (Melissa George, doing a lot with a little). Instead, Hagerty is a morose, one-note anger factory who’s less than compelling to follow through the story.
Outside of Tom, the rest of the crew get their little moments to shine, including LisaGay Hamilton as his fellow commander, struggling with having her ambitions thwarted and her opinions largely ignored because everyone is willing to cut Hagerty every break imaginable.
The First feels a little like a bait-and-switch, as if you were promised something along the lines of The Martian, but instead of the astronaut action watched eight hours of Matt Damon agonising about how his potatoes aren’t growing properly in poo. It’s well-acted, directed and written, but it’s not always the most satisfying viewing experience on the planet. James White
Feels a little like a bait-andswitch
The room turned icy when Madonna was mentioned.