You should know up top that I have a strong affection for NBC’s “This Is Us,” despite the schmaltz, despite the way it rubs our noses in the heroism and dignity of its characters. I admire the sure hand of the storytelling, the callbacks and reach-aheads embedded in the plots, and much of the acting, which neutralizes some of the mawkishness.
So I enjoyed the new Netflix sci-fi drama “Away,” about the first space flight to Mars, even though it suffers from the same weaknesses. The show is about a three-year cosmic mission, but it’s also about an earthbound mission to pluck your heartstrings and rouse your nobler feelings in almost every scene. Like the series from some of its executive producers, including Jason Katims (“Friday Night Lights,” “Parenthood”) and Matt Reeves (“Felicity”), it has a sincere vibe that can be like kryptonite to hardened cynics. “Away” is galaxies away from the anti-hero dramas ushered in by cable TV in the past two decades.
Created by Andrew Hinderaker, the 10 episodes streaming Friday work hard to inspire, and sometimes do — but in the process they remind us that inspiration is delicate and should not be stirred too forcefully. With big-statement dialogue such as “I am walking out of this hospital, do you understand?” from a man in a wheelchair, you may find yourself scanning for a character who’s just a lousy, weak person with unredeemable qualities and a bad haircut. “Away” doesn’t ask questions about the hubris of defying nature; it’s an unapologetic celebration of human potential and ambition. When the ship’s commander, Hilary Swank’s Emma Green, announces to the world at launch, “If we can do this, we can do anything,” there is no irony afoot.
And yet, and yet . . . I was taken in by the blend of realism and fantasy in “Away,” as the international crew of five copes with mechanical and psychological issues on the ship, while their families on Earth cope with emotional issues of abandonment. I appreciated the way each episode gives us a different astronaut’s backstory, “Lost”-like, to add context to their behavior in space. And I liked thinking big thoughts about what it might be like to spend three years away from the planet, which the astronauts are facing, fighting off despair and loneliness.
The show is as much about the melodramas as it is about the science-fictional space elements, which, by the way, are portrayed beautifully with strong special effects that make all the gravity-less-ness seem natural. Emma has left behind her NASA-engineer husband, Matt (Josh Charles), and her 15-year-old daughter, Alexis (Talitha Bateman), and they face a few crises at home without her. The astronauts stay in touch with their families for much of the journey via video and text, but that doesn’t make it easier for Emma to be away when things go wrong, or when Alexis begins to date. Swank makes Emma’s feelings — particularly about being an absentee mother and a valuable role model at the same time — palpable, but with enough of her familiar stoicism to keep it from dominating.
The other crew members for the mission are veteran Russian astronaut Misha Popov (Mark Ivanir), Indian co-pilot and medic Ram Arya (Ray Panthaki), Chinese chemist Lu Wang (Vivian Wu), and British botanist Dr. Kwesi Weisberg-Abban (Ato Essandoh), the only one who has never been in space before. Each of the actors gradually deepens his or her character, so that they aren’t simply the clichés of their respective countries as written. Emma faces sexism, particularly from Misha, and she faces disdain from the subdued Lu, who dislikes Emma’s willingness to display her emotions publicly. They all form a dynamic ensemble, especially as, in almost every episode, something goes wrong with the machinery or with the interpersonal strains on board. Again, they’re all ultimately good people, but, like so much in this positive, feel-good show, tolerably so.
Starring: Hilary Swank, Josh Charles, Vivian Wu, Talitha Bateman, Ato Essandoh, Ray Panthaki, Mark Ivanir
On: Netflix. Available Friday.