I’d heard some rumors of good things coming out of the new series, The First, which is now streaming on Hulu. I’ve found most Hulu original series to be pretty decent (we’ve enjoyed Castle Rock and The Handmaid’s Tale, although the latter is so full of existential dread that at times we struggle to get through each episode and haven’t finished the latest season). I asked the family to give it a try with me this week and we’ve already finished the first season of 8 episodes.
The overall consensus: this is a great series. The acting is simply top-notch, and all of us who watched it (myself, my wife, and my daughter) thought Sean Penn was absolutely brilliant in it, despite none of us really caring much for Sean Penn. The rest of the acting was equally good, the characters were complex and well written, and while the plotting may seem a little slow, this is a show about the characters first, and the rest of the story is there surrounding them to complicate their responses to life.
We start the series with the launch of the first mission to Mars by a human crew. Five astronauts are in the launch vehicle and we get shots of various people watching. Sean Penn’s character is introduced and there’s an immediate realization (even before it’s all explained) that he was supposed to be on this mission and has been removed from the crew for reasons unknown. He’s watching from home as well, which suggested he’s grieving about the loss of his opportunity.
It also led to me realizing the first big plot twist as the launch vehicle took off and they were “go for throttle up.” I even said “watch when they go for throttle up, that’s when it all goes to hell.” I was right, and it did, and everything went to hell.
Over the course of eight episodes we learn that the character played by Penn is still grieving his wife, who died as they prepared for the first – now disastrously failed – mission. His daughter and he have a contentious relationship, and she’d been in and out of rehab since her mom committed suicide, which made it impossible for him to focus on his work. Anna Jacoby-Heron, who plays Penn’s daughter, does a fine job of towing the always fragile line between angry young woman and drug addict, emotionally fragile and yet resilient in her own ways. I’ve only seen her once before, in a much smaller role on Stranger Things, but here she’s allowed to bite into the material and run with it. While I personally struggle when I watch stories of people making bad choices – and the character of Denise continues to struggle with her addictions as she absorbs the loss of first her mother and, later, her father as he joins the second mission to Mars – she never seems like she’s entirely out of control. Merely trying to find a stable place in her life that allows her to survive without falling down again.
The rest of the characters are equally as complex and nuanced. We get to see plenty of aspects of their personal lives and how their families are dealing with their loved one’s desires to go into space, despite the obvious risks and the failure of the first mission. Or how they are dealing with their own careers and the respect – or lack thereof – they are receiving from their peers. It’s a complicated mix of characters who, despite obvious differences, have forged a close friendship under the auspices of a shared adventure.
A brief shut out to representation here. Others may view this differently, but I felt they did a pretty good job with characters from different cultural backgrounds, as well as different sexuality. It’s still a majority white cast, but none of the minorities who are in major roles felt like token additions, and the show has already passed the Bechdel test. Hey, it has a female president arguing with a female CEO about spending on her space program! That’s definitely GOT to be a first.
I found the series well written, particularly the dialogue. I think good dialogue is often underappreciated and people care more about camera shots, settings, CGI, and other particulars. Those are niceties that add to the overall ambience, but not critical factors in a successful show. The thing about the West Wing that made it so popular was the snappy dialogue, the strong monologues. The dialogue in The First always seems right for each character and true to their nature. It feels natural.
Of course, CGI IS important for science fiction, which this is. I loved how they used subtle queues for us to quickly realize this is our world, but sometime in the near future. Electric cars are obiquitous, as are eyeglass headsets that allow people to interact with virtual computer displays and even watch events as though they are sitting in the room and its happening around them. Voice commands are everywhere, from turning off the lights to telling a car to accelerate. It’s never “too much”, always something that it feels we are already on the verge of developing or perfecting, and gives the series a sort of “Black Mirror” feel. The space and rocket launches are competently produced and here, again, the technology feels right for something twenty or thirty years down the road. Plus the shots of space are gorgeous.
The series is not getting the love it deserves, from what I can tell. That’s too bad, because we’ve got a great combination of fantastic writing, brilliant acting, and a wonderful setting for this science fiction program, something we don’t get very much of these days. It’s very different than most science fiction fare these days, both hopeful and yet still grounded in the dirt of lives that are being lived with all the messy complications that relationships bring. It’s a wonderful combination that I admire.
On the Reynolds Wrap scale from 1 “Space: 1999 rehash” to 10 “First season of Daredevil perfection” I’m going to give this a 10. It far exceeds expectations with its writing, acting, and the way it stands apart from so much other science fiction in television these days. Give it a try, I suspect you won’t be disappointed.