It’s no secret at this point that Beau Willimon is preoccupied with ambition. After working on Howard Dean’s abortive 2004 presidential campaign, Willimon turned his experiences into a play, Farragut North, about toxic political aspiration. Then he created Netflix’s House of Cards, an almost comically bleak excavation of power and the rotten, sociopathic people who crave it.
Willimon’s The First, released in its entirety Friday on Hulu, is different. Its characters are defined by the earnestness of their dreams, not their Machiavellian drive toward self-advancement. They deliver stirring monologues about heroism and the human race that, if you squint a little, seem almost Sorkinian. In early episodes, Commander Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn) emphasizes over and over that his family’s needs supersede his career ambitions. Make no mistake, though: He’s lying.
Because the astronauts of The First, compelled to sacrifice all to be the first humans to set foot on Mars, are no less driven than the Franks and the Claires of the fictional D.C. power matrix. It’s just a different kind of ambition. The show is called The First for a reason—it’s interested primarily with what compels people to make history, even when the cost is everything else you care about. It’s a valid question to consider, but it’s also what positions The First somewhat awkwardly between a theatrical work of realism and a futuristic sci-fi fantasy. It’s a space story that’s much more interested in the intimate personal wranglings happening at ground level.