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.
It isn’t until the end-ish of all eight episodes that anyone even enters orbit, which might tax the patience of viewers expecting The Martian or Interstellar. Instead, the series examines what the efforts to send a human spacecraft to Mars might entail. Set in the near future, in the 2030s, The First focuses on Hagerty, an astronaut who’s been to the moon but whose literally stratospheric career has wounded his family. His wife, Diane (Melissa George, in flashback), died in murky circumstances; his daughter, Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron), is a drug addict traumatized by her mother’s seeming suicide and her father’s frequent absences. At the show’s onset, Hagerty has stepped back from space travel to devote himself to Denise, assisting the first manned mission to Mars in an advisory role instead.
But—not really a spoiler—the first flight doesn’t go according to plan. In the show’s imagination, NASA has outsourced space travel to a private corporation led by Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone), a detached genius reminiscent of Elon Musk. Laz and Hagerty are tasked with persuading Congress that it should keep funding the ferociously expensive mission, even as Earth wrestles with the more pressing matters of widespread drought, record extinction rates, and 900 million eco-refugees made homeless by climate change. And Hagerty has to decide, again, whether his daughter’s needs should take precedence over his place in the history books.
The story unfolds in both a muted and an abstract way, with long scenes of loaded emotional conflict interspersed with surreal interludes featuring a shrouded man with a southern accent and ragged fingernails who fixes rotary phones and opines about daring to dream. (“What’s far is near, so close, it’s just beneath the skin, breathing, pulsing, racing, waiting for you to find it.”) These fragments are hard to parse (Googling got me nowhere), and they feel more distractingly stylistic than anything else. The First is similarly loaded with scenes featuring an admirably jacked Penn doing weight training underwater, which—while decorative—don’t contribute much to the themes at hand.
The First could easily have been a movie, or even the first two episodes of a TV series that actually wants to go into space. There would have been time enough to consider the desires of Hagerty’s crew: Kayla Price (LisaGay Hamilton), who struggles with trusting her own instincts over Hagerty’s authority; Sadie Hewitt (Hannah Ware), whose husband has to make sacrifices to enable her career; Aiko Hakari (Keiko Agena), who’s abandoning a husband, an ailing mother, and two sons for a two-year mission to Mars; and Nick Fletcher (James Ransone), who gets no story lines at all. They all (except Fletcher) have to justify their dreams to families who want to support them, but who struggle with the consequences.
The time spent with them, though, is minimal, compared with the effort The First puts into Hagerty’s relationship with his daughter. There’s an entire episode of flashbacks to his marriage to Diane, a tattoo artist, and their subsequent arguments over raising Denise (the matter of how exactly Diane died is left hazy). George is spectacular in her scenes, humanizing the slightly robotic Hagerty in a way that few other characters can manage. And Jacoby-Heron is convincingly vulnerable and self-sabotaging as Denise, a character who’s wise enough to know that if she makes her father put her first, he’ll ultimately hate her for it. But the scenes with Hagerty and Denise dominate the show to a disproportionate extent, and to the detriment of lots of other things The First wants to do.
Penn is solid and stolid as Hagerty, conveying more depth in the scenes with his family than he does with his crew. What’s missing is a sense of why he wants so badly to be the first man on Mars, to the extent where it dwarfs the rest of his life. The show delves a bit more into the urgency of ambition with McElhone’s Laz, a character who freely confesses that innovation and progress are worth the human toll. Laz is supposed to be an archetypal Silicon Valley savant, unfeeling and obsessive, but McElhone does her best work in the later episodes, when Laz is allowed to be more sympathetic. It makes her more convincing when she tells a reporter that “any time people venture into the unknown, there’s a cost.”
It’s ultimately strange that The First takes so long to get to space, because it’s weighed down with so many trappings of space epics. There’s the thundering strings-and-trumpets score, the requisite Max Richter–esque interlude, and the stunning cinematography by Adam Stone. The script constantly forces parallels between the astronauts and the earthlings, suggesting, for example, that Hagerty’s desire to go to space is a symptom of the same kind of escapism that makes his daughter do drugs. Perhaps predictably, the scenes set in Washington are the most assured, as Laz and Hagerty beg and plead for the funding to get their project off the ground, and as politicians jostle to further their own agenda. Maybe, for Willimon, it’s more comfortable territory to write cynical characters than dreamers.
That said, when Hagerty and his crew finally make it into orbit, the series clicks into place. The sweeping vistas of Earth from above, the messages from home, the sense of truly uncharted territory—it all makes everything that’s happened up to that point feel small stakes and insignificant by comparison. Which might also urge the question of why the show spent so much time being earthbound when we could have been up in the stars the whole time.