The First
Credit: Paul Schrimaldi/Hulu

Plenty of people would like to see Sean Penn launched into space, but on The First — Hulu’s drama about America’s inaugural mission to Mars — the actor remains largely earthbound.

Penn plays Tom Hagerty, an astronaut who is relieved of his command after a one-two punch of family trauma—his wife, Diane (Melissa George), dies and his daughter Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron) develops a drug addiction. When the initial launch goes horribly awry, Tom’s old boss (Natascha McElhone) asks him to help save the Mars mission before Congress cuts off funding.

Penn, sinewy with muscle and sporting a hairstyle that can best be described as a tricolor fright, gives an enthralling performance as Hagerty, the kind of strong, by-the-book guy you want leading souls into the stratosphere. He’s also a loving dad, and Penn’s scenes with Jacoby-Heron are quietly emotional; you can feel the years of unspoken pain vibrating beneath each tentative interaction.

Episodes 1 and 2 of The First — which was created by House of Cards executive producer Beau Willimon — are front-loaded with Tom’s dilemma, his torn loyalties between a job that consumes him and a daughter who still needs him. So it’s disorienting when the focus shifts abruptly in episode 3 to Tom’s fellow astronauts and their loved ones, as they navigate the tense, emotional preparations necessary for an extended separation. It’s as though the show changed the channel on itself, switching from a drama about a widowed father who just happens to be an astronaut to a drama about a team of astronauts, one of whom just happens to be a widowed father.

Not helping matters are what I’ll call the “rotary phone interludes,” seemingly random interruptions of voiceover, in which an unidentified and mostly unseen character utters quasi-profound musings (“The stars and the dirt — they’re the same dust”) in a languid Southern drawl, while (maybe?) repairing an old telephone.

The First (all episodes launch Friday, Sept. 14) does eventually come back to Tom and Denise — episodes 1, 2, and 5 are a stunning triptych of a family in crisis — and the disparate parts of the story have potential. Willimon’s future is a sleek vision of high-tech eyeglasses and voice-activated everything; the character of Kayla (LisaGay Hamilton), a black, queer female Army colonel, could be a series unto herself. The threads, however, never fully entwine, and in the end The First feels much like Mars itself: cold, bumpy, and too far away to touch. B–