We haven’t seen much of Sean Penn in recent years. You need just one hand to count the number of major film roles he’s had this decade.
From the moment Penn enters the picture in the new, eight-part Hulu original series “The First,” we’re reminded of just what a compelling screen presence he is and how he can make even the smallest moments interesting and original.
This is Penn’s first starring role on a TV project, and it’s award-worthy. There’s an early scene in the pilot involving Penn and his loyal canine companion, and I swear it feels like he’s making even the dog a better actor through his generous and wholly authentic presence.
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Not that “The First” is only about a man and his dog. (Well, except when it is.) This is an ambitious, bold, beautiful, occasionally trippy, big-picture sci-fi drama set in a near future in which NASA has not only returned to the moon — it now has its sights set on sending the first team of astronauts to Mars.
Created by Beau Willimon (“House of Cards”) and set in the New Orleans of the early 2030s, “The First” has some neat-looking, self-driving future-cars and subtly weaves in other techno-nods to the period. But we’re not hit over the head with that. Suffice to say that after contentious hearings and much controversy (and heartbreak), Congress has approved a manned mission to Mars.
Penn plays Tom Hagerty, a decorated veteran and former astronaut who’s famous for being “The 13th Man on the Moon,” as a TV news show captions him. (The 58-year-old Penn is in great shape, sporting muscles on top of muscles as he goes on his shirtless morning runs, but his multicolored, permanently messy mop of hair is distracting. One can’t imagine an astronaut, even an astronaut of the future, looking like the road manager for U2.)
After Hagerty’s family life was rocked to the core — his wife died, and his teenage daughter got hooked on drugs — he was relieved of his command by STEM genius Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone), who is in charge of the private aerospace program funding the mission.
But now, with only a couple of years until the next launch window, Hagerty’s back on duty, tasked with assembling the perfect team to carry out the breathtaking, history-making and, of course, insanely dangerous mission.
“The First” shifts tones in sometimes jarring fashion. One moment, we’re looking at stunning visuals of the red planet or the stars in the sky, as the score reaches an overpowering crescendo that would make the likes of Hans Zimmer blush and say, “That might be a little much, but, damn, it works.” And we occasionally get cryptic, mystical, philosophical voice-over notes from an unseen dude with a Southern accent who appears to be repairing some kind of 20th century device (maybe a pay phone or a jukebox) as he weighs in on, well, big-picture stuff.
The next moment, we’re watching an intimate, character-driven drama, with Hagerty welcoming his wayward daughter Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron) home and putting his heart and soul — sometimes awkwardly but always sincerely — into reconnecting with her and helping her get through the day. Your heart hurts for this proud but brokenhearted father and his daughter, who is smart and good but emotionally vulnerable and sometimes self-destructive.
As the series progresses, the focus sometimes shifts to other storylines. LisaGay Hamilton is outstanding as Hagerty’s second-in-command, who has had to overcome discrimination on multiple fronts her entire life but refuses to let that define her. Hannah Ware does fine work as an astronaut sacrificing everything for this mission — but still might not make Hagerty’s final cut. As we get to know more about McElhone’s Laz, we come to understand she’s not the stereotypical ice queen seen in the first episode.
Life is as complicated in the 2030s of “The First,” as it is today — but, unlike most dystopian-future films and TV shows, there’s often an optimistic, we-can-do-anything, America-is-great tone to the storytelling.
Hey, if we can put people on Mars, we can do anything.
Now showing on Hulu