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 Sep 13 - 19, 2018 
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Idiot Box

Space is the Place

“The First” On Hulu

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America currently sits in the sweet spot between the Oscar-nominated release of The Martian, which made NASA cool again, and the creation of Donald Trump’s vaunted Space Force, which will send America’s finest young men and women out into space to defend our valuable asteroids from … I don’t know, ISIS, I guess. Now seems as good a time as any for our country to re-ignite the debate about space travel. Is the future of our race out there amid the stars?

Hulu weighs in on the issue with its forward-leaning sci-fi series “The First,” a co-production between the American streaming service and British television network Channel 4. The show springs from the mind of Beau Willimon, who created a little Netflix series called “House of Cards.” That gives you some indication of the tone “The First” takes. Less interested in science or fiction, “The First” goes in for glum, self-serious and slow-building interpersonal drama.

Set in the near future (people talk to their electronics a bit more), “The First” takes us directly to the launch of the first manned mission to Mars. The project is spearheaded by private aerospace tech guru Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone), a sort of gender-swapped Elon Musk with dreams of shepherding humanity into the future. Sitting on the sidelines is Col. Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn), who handpicked and trained the astronauts rocketing off to Mars but was jettisoned from the team at the last minute. (Perhaps someone saw the danger in sending a 58-year-old pilot on a 25-year mission.) Where the moment should be inspirational and uplifting, it’s fraught with tension. Laz frets over every technical glitch, and Tom sulks that he wasn’t invited to the party.

The tension proves justified, however, when things go very wrong for the mission. This threatens Laz’ reputation and gives Tom his second chance at outer space glory. As if that weren’t enough drama for one show, Tom’s estranged teenage daughter (who’s also a junkie) shows up on his doorstep. Basically, don’t hold your breath waiting for anyone to walk on the surface of Mars anytime soon.

The pace picks up a tad in future episodes. Laz travels to Washington to testify in front of Congress. The family of an astronaut files a lawsuit. The tech team labors to correct problems with the Mars Ascent Vehicle. Like “House of Cards,” it all involves a lot of talking.

The show’s overall goals are lofty and admirable. We should spend a lot more time looking to science (rather than politicians) for help in solving many of our planet’s problems. But “The First” mostly favors slow camera push-ins to Penn’s face as it seethes in quiet anger or quiet pain or quiet whatever. It’s an occasionally stirring character drama thanks to its solid cast, but the whole thing remains resolutely earthbound when it should soar.

The first season of “The First” premieres Friday, Sept. 14 on Hulu.

 
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