It’s liftoff for the Os­cars race

“First Man” is among films reach­ing for the sky.

USA TODAY US Edition - - LIFE - Kelly Lawler Colum­nist

Who knew space travel could be this bor­ing?

Set in the near fu­ture, Hulu’s “The First” stars Sean Penn as an as­tro­naut on the first manned mis­sion to Mars, in the­ory a dar­ing feat of hu­man in­ven­tion and op­ti­mism that hasn’t been seen since man first walked on the moon in 1969. Yet it’s por­trayed here as a lame slog of pol­i­tics and mar­i­tal squab­bles. It’s hard to make some­thing as nat­u­rally cap­ti­vat­ing and ethe­real as space travel dull, but “The First” (stream­ing Fri­day, ★g☆☆) has done just that.

Long-winded, te­dious and full of metaphors, al­lu­sions and sym­bols piled on top of each other in a lit­er­ary garbage pile, “The First” is an un­in­ten­tional par­ody of the ex­pen­sive, self-im­por­tant shows that some­how get the la­bel “pres­tige TV.”

Cre­ator Beau Wil­limon (”House of Cards”) by­passes most of the the sci­ence fic­tion and ad­ven­ture tropes that of­ten make space drama cap­ti­vat­ing and opts in­stead to make a work­place and fam­ily drama that can’t be res­cued by Penn.

In­stead of el­e­vat­ing the ma­te­rial, he sim­ply scowls his way through over­writ­ten lines and poor fa­cial hair choices for eight in­ter­minable episodes.

The se­ries be­gins with a tragedy that sets the Mars mis­sion back years and forces Tom Hagerty (Penn), who was pushed out of the ini­tial mis­sion af­ter per­sonal prob­lems, to come back to the fold and create a new team. The episodes fol­low the team’s train­ing and per­sonal drama un­der the watch­ful eye of Laz In­gram (Natascha McEl­hone), a tech CEO who nabbed the multi­bil­lion­dol­lar gov­ern­ment con­tract for the Mars ex­pe­di­tion.

There are plenty of op­por­tu­ni­ties for good storytelling in “The First,” and nearly ev­ery one of them is wasted. Scenes, es­pe­cially af­ter the ini­tial catas­tro­phe kicks it off, lack propul­sion, and an en­tire episode is set in con­gres­sional hear­ings in which Laz and Tom try to re­gain fund­ing for the mis­sion. It’s all even less en­ter­tain­ing than the re­al­life hear­ings on ca­ble or CSPAN.

The writ­ers strug­gle to create well­drawn and in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ters to pop­u­late the mis­sion. Sadie (Han­nah Ware), a sci­en­tist shunted from the Mars team on Tom’s or­der, is a blank slate with no emo­tional res­o­nance. The trou­bles fac­ing Tom’s daugh­ter, Denise (Anna Ja­coby-Heron), and his late wife, Diane (Melissa Ge­orge), who’s seen in flash­backs, re­main shrouded in se­crecy for half the sea­son.

The show has a bland, san­i­tized feel, no mat­ter how hard its cheesy score tries to heighten the in­spi­ra­tion at ev­ery turn. The best sci-fi sto­ries, un­der­neath the ro­bots and space flights, are great hu­man sto­ries.

But “The First” writ­ers have some­how made their show both too hu­man and not hu­man enough. Bor­ing and poorly drawn char­ac­ters get too much screen time, and its ad­ven­ture story is a lame af­ter­thought. Nei­ther the story nor the char­ac­ters are enough to draw view­ers, and an un­earned self-im­por­tant style makes the se­ries so grat­ing its nearly un­watch­able.

“The First” is meant to take view­ers to the stars, but this is one mis­sion that never achieves liftoff.


Sean Penn stars as Tom Hagerty in “The First.”


Anna Ja­coby-Heron is Denise Hagerty in “The First.”

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