Really, it’s not until episode three that you get a true and unexpected sense of what “The First” is all about. It has a slowly developing story line, this new Hulu drama from “House of Cards” creator Beau Willimon, like an old-school photo that comes into contrast in chemical solution.
It’s set in the near future, and it follows a crew undertaking the first mission to Mars; but you begin to realize that the season is primarily going to take place before they board that ship and soar into the cosmos. This isn’t your typical sci-fi venture where all the dialogue is spoken inside wired space helmets, where the awe of space travel is driven home by the digital wonders we see in films such as “Gravity.” Starring an insanely ripped Sean Penn, “The First” is about the personal dramas and office politics of the astronauts here on planet Earth.
It’s a bold twist, to have all the turbulence take place before the mission, to make “The First” a psychological journey instead of a literal one. But it doesn’t always work, due to too many terribly operatic emotional scenes after the first two hours, some slow pacing without payoffs, and a lead character whose conflicts are not particularly original or dynamic. The show, whose first season of eight episodes is available on Friday, isn’t a disaster by any means, and it features a few strong performances. But it lacks forward momentum as it lingers indulgently in some of its least interesting conflicts.
Penn plays Tom Hagerty, a highly skilled astronaut with deep lines of experience in his face, who initially seems like a one-dimensional hero from a movie like “Apollo 13.” He always thinks ahead, he exercises like a maniac with weights underwater, he is compassionate, and he is coping with a family tragedy — the death of his wife, played by Melissa George in flashbacks — like a trouper. You’re ready to fly to the moon if he’s at the wheel. But after a few episodes, the flaws emerge, and Penn’s performance drifts from cool wisdom into muddy emotionality. The death of his tattoo-artist wife, portrayed in episode five, and the resulting drug problems of their daughter, Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron), take center stage, and we see that Tom is obsessed with space travel as a means of escape from his ugly feelings. He can solve a flight issue, and he will show up for any crew member in need, but his daughter’s depression is a farther cry.
We also delve — more successfully — into some of the stresses of Tom’s crew members and his boss. As the second in command to the forceful and ego-driven Tom, LisaGay Hamilton shines as Kayla, particularly in the fourth episode. Kayla copes with slights she is used to, but increasingly tired of, as a woman, a black, and a lesbian, and Hamilton makes her frustration palpable and sympathetic. The most compelling character of all, though, is Laz Ingram, played with typical dignity by co-lead Natascha McElhone. Laz is the head of the private aerospace corporation that’s trying to fund the project at a time when space travel is not an easy sell. She seems detached and uncaring, until you understand that she is circumspect for all the right reasons.
I wish Tom had been written a little differently, so that Penn wouldn’t need to lurch so awkwardly between pensive and tortured. He acts like a complex hero in this post-“Sopranos” era, but the aimless writing and the arty editing leave him flat.
Starring: Sean Penn, Natascha McElhone, LisaGay Hamilton, James Ransone, Oded Fehr, Anna Jacoby-Heron, Hannah Ware, Keiko Agena, Jeannie Berlin
On: Hulu; the eight-episode first season is available FridayMatthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.