Some might think it ironic that a series revolving around a mission to a large unexplored astronomical body with a similar title to Damien Chazelle‘s First Man debuts just a month prior to the film’s wide release. While The First attempts to appear as more than a story of the inaugural journey to Mars, the plot and characters it presents create intrigue but ultimately leave audiences altogether unfulfilled.
The series opens with the first launch attempt to the Red Planet, which ultimately ends in failure. Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn) who was the commander of the initial crew watches the unsuccessful attempt from the ground, removed from his post because of his personal conflicts with Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone), CEO of the commercial launch provider, Vista. The failing of the first launch leads these two characters to act in contrasting ways. Tom attempts to be pragmatic with issues whilst Laz keeps her distance from them. This shapes how they deal with the consequential events that follow, as Laz and her Vista colleagues are not only forced to explain to Congress why the first launch failed, but also to justify why another should take place. The series then follows on to cover the next two years of preparation and training for a second launch by Laz’s team, including Tom’s struggles between commanding his new team of astronauts and trying to reconcile relations with his daughter, Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron).
Tom’s personal struggles are one of the main focusing plotlines within the series, though the rest of the crew members, as well as Laz, are all explored to some extent. The main problem of The First is that its content can be lacking in depth at times, not to mention predictable for a series that only lasts eight episodes, and it is rather sluggish to the end. There are elements worthy of merit, however. The performances by every cast member are delightfully nuanced, and it is pleasing to see that for once on TV, every action is not tiredly elucidated, allowing the audience to be intrigued especially by Tom and Denise’s relationship.
There are also moments of admirable artistry and one that stands out is the score by Colin Stetson, fresh off his work on Ari Aster’s Hereditary. His characteristic emphasis on brass and woodwinds has become distinctive, and here he creates beautifully haunting and emotionally stirring motifs; one especially memorable and recurring theme sounds like a hypnotic alarm. At times the artistic elements of the show’s style seem to be an attempt to compensate for what is lacking in plot content; this is often the case in several episodes that end with an overindulgently poetic monologue.
The penultimate episode does admittedly build well towards the eventual ending by delving into the difficult choices each of the astronauts is forced to make, but the climax itself is like the majority of the series as a whole: only barely trudging along. The very closing moments also come as a disappointment, with a contrived and cliche scene between Tom and Denise.
Following his work in House of Cards, Beau Willimon has attempted to give us another series that gets audiences contemplating their own choices as well as those of his show’s characters, however The First is a drama prone to rambling that never deserts its plodding pace. As a result, audiences are likely to be underwhelmed.