WHAT IT'S ABOUT Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn) is selected to command the first attempt to put humans on Mars, named the Providence mission, but there are complications. His cherished only daughter, Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron), needs her father by her side, as they both work through their grief following the death of Hagerty's wife and Denise's mother, Diane (Melissa George, in flashback). He also has to work closely with the other mission commander, Kayla Price (LisaGay Hamilton), who has her own ideas about mission protocol. Meanwhile, overseer of this vastly complicated job is Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone). She's a brilliant magnate — think Elon Musk — whose vision and company have been selected by NASA to mount the first human trip to Mars. The show, created by Beau Willimon ("House of Cards"), is also Penn's first TV series.
MY SAY Something or someone is missing in "The First." In fact, this "something" could almost be a "someone" because we've mythologized it and romanticized and humanized it for so long, since before recorded history really. But not here. Whole scenes go by, then whole episodes, and finally, an entire series with scarcely a mention of Mars. When the time finally arrives for liftoff, about midway in the eighth and final episode, you could almost imagine one of the crewmates saying to another, with a tone of genuine bafflement, "So where are we going to exactly?"
At first, poor AWOL Mars seems like an easy omission, and one of those story elements viewers just have to take for granted. Of course they're planning a trip to Mars. Where else? Disney World? But then that omission becomes glaringly obvious. Everyone is talking anything else — staffing issues, sex lives, father/daughter concerns, even the noisy cicadas at one point — but hardly once can they get around to the "M" word.
And then, finally, it all becomes obvious: Willimon and his Oscar-nominated director, Agnieszka Holland, and two-time Oscar-winning star have made an artistic choice. This isn't about the first human voyage to Mars at all, but a trip into the human heart. The human race can dream about a trip to the stars, but at the end of all our dreaming, we arrive right back at where we started. All of us — yeah, even Sean Penn, or especially Sean Penn — are messy, flawed, emotional, cryptic, complicated, feeling people who need other people with equally messy, complicated lives. What does Mars have to do with this?
Well, from a viewer perspective, or from the perspective of a viewer about to devote eight hours of his or her life to "The First," pretty much everything. Hardly anywhere does this series get around to that extraordinary idea of why a trip to Mars might be necessary, or why it might matter on some fundamental or even notional level.
Mars is up there, all right, and it's filled our imagination since before the human race knew what imaginations were. Instead, "The First" plods along down here, making its way through the weeds. Willimon, in fact, is an expert at navigating through those weeds, as he did in "House of Cards," exploring the intricacies of institutional decision-making and how those decisions are fraught with bias or baggage. Hagerty overrides Price on a critical personnel decision, which she correctly interprets as his preference for a decision not made by a "black, queer woman." He struggles to join the Providence crew because of his allegiance to his daughter, Denise, and, by association, his dead wife.
But what's missing is excitement — the thrill of discovery, or a sense of that momentous step into the great beyond, where all our dreams will come true or all our nightmares. What's left, instead, is tedium.
BOTTOM LINE Visually compelling with a nicely pensive music score — courtesy of Colin Stetson of Arcade Fire and Bon Iver — "The First" is otherwise plodding and padded.