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‘The First’ Review: Hulu’s Elegant Mars Drama Is an Inspiring Epic Made with Heartbreaking Honesty

Beau Willimon leaves Earth behind — but not politics — for a mission to Mars that's as grounded in humanity as it is stunning in scope.

The First -- "The Choice" - Episode 107 - Tom and the Providence crew must make a choice with potentially life-threatening consequences. Matteo wrestles with his past. Tom and Denise must deal with unfinished business. Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn) and Nick Fletcher (James Ransone), shown. (Photo by: Alan Markfield/Hulu)

Sean Penn in “The First”

Alan Markfield/Hulu

Of the many early attributes fueling “The First,” the opening score best captures the magnitude of what Hulu’s new drama series has in store. Horns quietly rise over a simmering hum until, just as the sun cracks through the darkness and casts a brilliant sliver of light over the red planet, Colin Stetson’s arrangement reaches a powerful crescendo; it calls to mind Hans Zimmer’s “Man of Steel” theme, but it’s reminiscent of any awe-inspiring moment made accessible by living among the stars, rather than resting under them.

Among other things, Beau Willimon’s first serialized story since “House of Cards” inspires this kind of lofty rhetoric. Its sheer optimism matches the long-standing American mythos once defined by our trip to the moon instead of the ugly present mired by contentious connections between individuals, parties, and societies. It’s so earnest in its belief in people, the drive to reach Mars, now, isn’t about abandoning Earth and looking to start over elsewhere. These initial eight episodes find meaning as resonant as the pulsing notes in their score. Some may say it’s out of touch, but really, “The First” feels like a pioneer amid a sea of narrative cynicism — a look past the present to where we need to be, and how we can get there.

Following his Netflix drama’s dark and moody nature, this marks a staunch shift in perspective for Willimon, who’s now asking viewers to aspire to a dream instead of fear its failure. And “The First” is dreaming very, very big. Set in the near future, where a manned mission to Mars is theoretically possible, Season 1 deftly maneuvers between the grand meaning and grand sacrifice of the astronauts looking to advance mankind’s journey. Its characters have direct, engaged conversations where people respond to reason and purpose. No one is distractedly scrolling through their iPhone over dinner, just as fake news propagandists are kept off NASA’s back during Congressional budget hearings. The series acknowledges these factions exist, but “The First” is on the other side of America’s toxic relationship with disbelief.

The First -- "Near and Far" - Episode 108 - The crew of Providence 2 prepares to launch. Laz and Denise get ready for a new chapter in their lives. Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone), shown. (Photo by: Alan Markfield/Hulu)

Natascha McElhone in “The First”

Alan Markfield/Hulu

Sean Penn plays Tom Hagerty, a veteran commander who’s pulled off the first manned mission to Mars shortly before his team departs. Laz Ingram (Natasha McElhone) is the one making that call, and though her specific reasons are held back until midseason, the head of a private aerospace program (think Elon Musk’s SpaceX) isn’t depicted as a coldhearted businesswoman. She’s a leader who’s focused on what’s best for her team, her company, and her planet.

Despite being primary protagonists who are both single, attractive, and sharing in similar interests, Tom and Laz aren’t a romantic pairing. Willimon knows better than to drop a tired will-they-or-won’t-they story into his laser-focused epic, but he still has plenty of time for relationships. So much time is spent getting to know the flight team and their families, Tom is temporarily set aside to favor less familiar perspectives. There’s LisaGay Hamilton’s Kayla Price, a second-in-command who explores issues of discrimination without overtly calling it out; there’s Hannah Ware’s Sadie, an astronaut fighting to make the final cut who had to adjust her entire life just to try out. And then there’s Tom’s daughter, Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron), who already lost one parent and now uses her painting to cope with losing another, again and again, as her dad ventures off into space.

It’s impossible to relate the nuance and autonomy given to each of these women, but it’s easy to explain why: Willimon’s diverse team of writers and directors includes three female authors who are solely credited for the episodes focused on these three pivotal characters. Their work is certainly a team effort, given how well they gel with the rest of the season, but the middle section of Season 1 features some of the best character development, perspective shifts, and overall writing this year.

The First "The Choice" - Episode 107 - Tom and the Providence crew must make a choice with potentially life-threatening consequences. Matteo wrestles with his past. Tom and Denise must deal with unfinished business. Jennifer Aiko Hakari (Keiko Agena), shown. (Photo by: Alan Markfield/Hulu)

Keiko Agena in “The First”

Alan Markfield/Hulu

While the series can be honest to the point of polarizing its audience — choices made by multiple astronauts challenge the accepted notions of personal responsibility and heroism — “The First” feels like a warm blanket. Willimon’s elegant (what the cynics would call “slow”) storytelling helps craft an earnest, encouraging quest to the stars, deliberately told at a time when viewers may have put the next frontier at the back of their minds.

Moreover, it’s built to inspire, and anyone listening to the score will feel exactly that — no matter the circumstances. Such a heart-pounding cue could be used to manipulate an audience into feeling something whether it’s earned or not, but “The First” rewards attentive viewers with droves of eye-opening and heartbreaking scenes. Absent the music, there’s still the series’ clean, beautiful cinematography, not to mention a compelling cast, to help make its narrative affecting and absorbing. Soft-touch technology upgrades are so subtly integrated into the storytelling these new-age glasses, cars, and phones should be used to teach future sci-fi writers how to incorporate their imagined machines.

Like its brief opening title sequence, “The First” offers just a peek at the actual journey through space. Future seasons, if they get the green light from Hulu, will likely tackle the actual journey through the stars and what happens when (or if) the team reaches Mars. That may sound like disincentive, but by the time Willimon sets his sights to the sky, you’re going to have a hard time saying goodbye to Earth; the weight of leaving is so deeply felt throughout Season 1, that the ecstasy of escape is the only way to balance it out. “The First” provides both, and that’s about as close as most of us can get to feeling like an astronaut.

Grade: A-

“The First” Season 1 premieres in its entirety Friday, September 14 on Hulu.

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