Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Pilot Review: The First

The First (Hulu)
Premiered September 14

Space has always offered infinite potential in the world of film and television because, for as much as the countries of the world have sent people into space, the average viewer won’t ever get to experience the majesty of traveling up into the stars and to other planets. A number of television series, including “Defying Gravity” and “Virtuality,” have followed astronauts on long-haul missions to the far reaches of what’s known, while films such as “Gravity,” “Interstellar,” and “The Martian” have taken movie audiences to incredible and unimaginable places. Director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to “La La Land” is “First Man,” the story of Neil Armstrong and man’s first step on the moon, set to be released in just a few weeks. And then there’s this show, which marks Sean Penn’s first regular television role and “House of Cards” creator Beau Willimon’s first project since launching the very first Netflix drama series. Its title evidently refers to the first to visit Mars, but that doesn’t happen in this pilot, and it’s not likely to happen in successive episodes given the way things went here. In fact, it’s not at all clear what this show is meant to focus on, since Penn’s Tom evidently wasn’t ultimately going on the mission and now is just racking himself with guilt because he could do nothing but watch his fellow astronauts die. Penn seems moody and unemotive, and I was caught off guard by Natasha McElhone’s British accent, since I always heard a hint of some foreign dialect watching her in “Californication” and “The Truman Show” but never knew where she came from. She’s far less inviting and dynamic than usual, and there’s no positive anchor for this show. Hulu obviously pumped a lot of promotional effort into this production, but I can’t see what the point was after this mildly intriguing but utterly unsatisfying introductory hour.

How will it work as a series? I would assume that we’ll see flashbacks to whatever happened to make Tom not be on the shuttle when it took off and exploded, and that maybe he’ll end up as the leader of the next mission that will likely get off the ground, figuratively, far more quickly than it should in the wake of this disaster. It might be interesting, but this pilot gives absolutely no context for where the show is headed next.
How long will it last? Hulu is doing great with a lot of its programs recently, and so it’s going to need to hold what I’m sure is a very expensive production to high standards. Last I checked, reviews were mixed, but now it appears that they’re just on the edge of good. I’m not sure that this is going to be the resounding, powerful success Hulu and British co-producer Channel 4 hoped it would be, so at the moment I’d predict that it won’t get a second season.

Pilot grade: C

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