The First Review: Hulu's New Astronaut Drama Engages But Doesn't Make It Out Of Orbit

the first hulu sean penn
(Image credit: Image courtesy of Hulu)

Streaming TV is the place to be for some of the most ambitious series on the small screen, and Hulu shoots for the stars with The First. The drama stars Sean Penn and a Designated Survivor star as a group of astronauts works to launch the first manned mission to Mars. The First is engaging with a launch that provides a stellar hook to tune in for the rest of the series, but it never quite makes it out of orbit.

The First stars Sean Penn as veteran astronaut and commander Tom Hagerty, who is an ideal candidate to lead a mission to Mars but is held back by his attachments to his troubled daughter Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron) and his deceased wife Diane (Melissa George). After a first attempt to reach the red planet doesn't go as planned, aerospace magnate Laz Ingram recruits Tom to keep the mission going. Tom must work with a co-commander by the name of Kayla Price (LisaGay Hamilton), and she has her doubts about why she must share her position with Tom. Working with a crew of talented other prospective travelers to Mars, the series follows the ups and downs of politics, policy, and humanity as everybody must consider how much the mission is really worth to them.

First things first: in case you're planning on tuning in because you expect to see lots of rockets blasting off as is somewhat hinted in the trailer, you may want to rethink the series. The First isn't about rockets blasting off. Rather, it's an examination of humanity and the personal relationships of the people tasked with accomplishing what was once impossible. Despite revolving around a mission to travel to Mars, The First is not just another sci-fi series. You won't see aliens or tech from other worlds or even anything too far out of the realm of possibility, although some of the advanced technology would certainly be helpful in real life.

hulu the first natascha mcelhone

(Image credit: Image courtesy of Hulu)

If, however, you're considering tuning in not because you're craving some sci-fi but rather because you're looking for some human drama, The First is a worthy watch. The First manages to make a group of extraordinary people relatable enough that you can feel their triumphs as well as their failures, and it excels in setting the tone. The series features a tragedy fairly early on that needed to hit home if viewers were going to care about the aftermath and the characters picking up the pieces. On that front, The First succeeds. The narrative simply meanders from its trajectory, which started out as the mission to take a group of people from Earth to Mars and back. The show makes it off the ground and into space; it simply doesn't blast off beyond expectations.

Although it's certainly unlike anything else on TV, The First is also not a show that's especially revolutionary. The First is a perfectly adequate way to pass the time. Even though you may not be on the edge of your seat from start to finish, you can likely enjoy the ride for what it is.

The cast is certainly solid enough. Sean Penn is unsurprisingly intense in some of his scenes, and his ability to switch between calm and controlled to intense and impassioned adds depth to his character. The relationship between Tom and his daughter wouldn't work if both actors couldn't turn in the same kind of nuanced performances, and Anna Jacoby-Heron holds her own opposite the experienced Penn. Natascha McElhone is perfectly cast as the cool and collected magnate who shows depth to anybody who looks hard enough for long enough, and Designated Survivor fans who are still upset that she left the series in that heartbreaking way (especially since Designated Survivor was recently rescued from cancellation by Netflix) can at least be assured that The First is an ideal starring vehicle for her as leading lady. The humanity that the show really needed to keep viewers interested comes courtesy of the performers.

Unlike other Hulu series like The Handmaid's Tale and Castle Rock (which recently aired its mind-bending season finale), all eight episodes of The First will be available streaming at once. You can begin The First on Friday, September 14 on Hulu. There also are plenty of other great shows coming to Hulu as well as broadcast TV this fall.

Laura Hurley
Senior Content Producer

Laura turned a lifelong love of television into a valid reason to write and think about TV on a daily basis. She's not a doctor, lawyer, or detective, but watches a lot of them in primetime. CinemaBlend's resident expert and interviewer for One Chicago, the galaxy far, far away, and a variety of other primetime television. Will not time travel and can cite multiple TV shows to explain why. She does, however, want to believe that she can sneak references to The X-Files into daily conversation (and author bios).