Giving a good review of Hulu’s new drama The First feels like a betrayal of everything I stand for as a critic.
It’s a show about Sean Penn going to Mars that never actually has him set foot on Mars. Hell, he doesn’t leave Earth until halfway through the season one finale. (There are eight episodes in said season, and I’ve seen them all.) It’s weird, slow-moving, pretentious, and more stretched-out than taffy that’s been left in a car on a hot summer day. It feels like creator Beau Willimon (of House of Cards fame) took the first 10 pages of a novel, or the first five minutes of the Christopher Nolan movie Interstellar, and expanded them into eight episodes of television.
These are all qualities I hate in modern TV drama, which never met an interesting premise — the first humans to visit Mars — that it couldn’t slow way the fuck down. I call it “when are they gonna get to the fireworks factory?” television, after the 1997 Simpsons episode “The Itchy Scratchy Poochie Show” (still one of the best TV episodes about the TV industry ever made). Milhouse, frustrated by an episode of Itchy Scratchy that never brings the titular cat and mouse to a fireworks factory promised by road signs, wails the line, and it’s a stand-in for every time a story just keeps withholding the interesting stuff in favor of something else entirely.
You’d better believe that The First is “when are they gonna get to the fireworks factory?” television. You’d also better believe that it’s leaden and self-serious and features, like footage of the life cycle of a cicada intercut with young people hooking up and a man with a vaguely Cajun accent drawling about nothing in particular over stock footage of the planet.
But oh boy did I find The First emotionally overwhelming and hard to shake. It got under my skin in a way I never would have predicted.
What The First is: a surprisingly affecting drama about several families and a planet in crisis. What it’s not: a show about going to Mars.
The First is perhaps best understood by watching its strongest hour, a nearly standalone episode that steps out of the season to tell a story about one family slowly but surely falling apart. Dubbed “Two Portraits,” the season’s fifth episode focuses on Denise, the daughter of Penn’s character, Tom. Played by Anna Jacoby-Heron (whom I had never heard of before The First, and who is simply remarkable), Denise embarks on painting a portrait of her late mother (Melissa George) and in the process of filling in the blank canvas slowly comes to better understand the woman who gave birth to her.
I’m treading very carefully here to avoid spoilers, because even though viewers will have figured out most of the reveals in “Two Portraits” before they’re directly depicted, the episode feels like a steady excavation of scar tissue. Knowing the wound is there doesn’t stop the arrival of the part where you uncover it and wince at the red, open gash.
Directed by the brilliant French-Turkish director Deniz Gamze Ergüven (whose 2015 film Mustang was one of my favorites of that year), “Two Portraits” is often filmed as though it’s a stage play, with pools of light isolating the actors and key pieces of set decoration in massive blank dark spaces.
It’s a canny depiction of how someone like Denise might come to better understand her parents and their failings as she grew up, and the older she gets, the less blinkered her perspective becomes. And all three actors involved bring their absolute best. (Penn seems a little disinterested at other points in the series — which is his first regular TV series role — but he’s as good as he’s ever been in “Two Portraits.”)
And despite that it works as a standalone episode, “Two Portraits” also helped me better understand what The First is doing. This is not a show about the people going to Mars. It’s a show about the people going to Mars.
That might seem like a subtle distinction, but it explains why, say, the show will butt up against what seems like a major conflict — we see Tom squabble with Laz (the woman funding the expedition, played by Natascha McElhone as a woman with immense money and power who never feels comfortable with herself) over which of two people to bring on the expedition to another planet — only to cut forward by a matter of weeks or months, the conflict long since resolved. (In this case, the person chosen is just suddenly on the team, and The First trusts us to figure out how it happened.)
It can all be a little bit much. When you sit down and think about it, everything that happens in season one of The First could have probably been condensed into three or four episodes. But that would have left less room for “Two Portraits,” or for the episodes that build up the lives of the other astronauts who will join Tom on his mission, or for a long series of interviews between Laz and a hostile journalist (the great Bill Camp).
I viscerally understand just how much this show is going to turn off some viewers. It is slow-moving and ponderous, and the occasional monologues from the Cajun voiceover guy are really ridiculous. I have a feeling that for every viewer who really cottons to The First, there will be three or four who spend their entire viewing howling at its self-seriousness. All I can say in my defense is that when the space explorers finally set off toward Mars — which, again, doesn’t happen until the middle of the season one finale — I teared up. It got me. I don’t know how else to explain myself.
I mentioned the movie Interstellar above, both because it seems like a touchstone for this movie (in that it also deals with a family in crisis whose lives are disrupted by one member choosing to spend huge amounts of time exploring space) and because The First similarly takes place on a near-future Earth where catastrophic climate change is gearing up to potentially cause our extinction and where technological shifts have pushed human workers out of many fields.
The argument that Laz makes to a skeptical US government is that going to Mars is imperative because it offers humanity’s best chance at survival. It’s an argument about legacy, about trying to leave a mark that won’t be washed away in the flood. But that idea is also integral to the show’s family drama side. After all, leaving a legacy is a big part of having a child, of hoping that you are carried on in some small way by a being that shares your DNA.
And yet having a child also means you can never completely ensure your legacy won’t be turned to ash, because their life is theirs to lead. Nobody gets to live forever, but we keep breeding new generations and creating art and striking off toward the unknown as if we might cheat death anyway, as if achieving immortality is just finding a way to plant your flag on some new world, or at least a different corner of this one. The First might be a more conventional sci-fi show once it gets to Mars, (assuming Hulu orders a second season that takes us there) but I suspect I won’t like it nearly as much.
The First’s entire first (heh) season is available on Hulu. It makes for a weird binge, but I’m pretty sure it would be insufferable week to week, so just watch it all at once. Then yell at me on Twitter.