Beau Willimon's second prestige TV drama following the critical success he achieved with House of Cards proves the showrunner's got big ambitions. The First, whose eight episodes all premiere September 14 on Hulu, stars Sean Penn as Tom Hagerty, an astronaut chosen to command the first manned effort to colonize Mars.
And the critical consensus is that the 58-year-old actor, who hasn't been seen in front of the camera since 2015, gets the job done, delivering a larger-than-life performance that not only reveals the scientist behind the hero but also the family man. For the show dives into various crises involving his wife and daughter back on Earth that Tom's seemingly running away from as well as glimpses of the actual mission itself.
Props are also reserved for Penn's co-star Natasha McElhone as Laz Ingram, the head of a private aerospace firm, whose idealism and fierce advocacy for the mission in the face of government red tape keeps us rooting for the team to get off the launch pad.
But while some reviewers appreciated the way The First draws its science-based explorations around the emotional fuel of its all-too-human characters, others took issue with things like uneven tone and pacing, and the fact that Mars is barely mentioned for much of the show's eight-episode run.
Here's what the critics are saying:
"The First comes out of the gate swinging and presents immediately as a masterclass in how to do prestige television right," raved Forbes. "It’s a very serious and down-to-earth show (pun intended), but it’s not pretentious and self-righteous."
"Going into The First anticipating fast-moving thrills and big-budget adventure is almost certainly a recipe for disappointment. Meet the show on its own terms by knowing that it's a drama about fierce dedication and an uncomfortable intersection of altruism and selfishness. The series has its eyes on the heavens but its feet on the ground," offers The Hollywood Reporter in a more grounded take.
"By the time the astronauts do get into space late in the series, after the finances are secured and the government approves and the astronauts pass their tests and some technology is fixed and their relationships are in an emotional place where it's OK for them to go to space, it doesn't feel like a triumph for mankind at all. It feels like what should have happened six episodes ago," writes a frustrated TV Guide.
"The First feels, at least, like something new. It has a level of sheer ambition that’s genuinely admirable, providing in its best moments a prismatic look at all the aspects of the sort of manned interplanetary mission we real-world Earthlings barely allow ourselves to imagine," reports Variety, though not before adding that the "often-predictable beats" of the show's family drama "keeps the worthy show from soaring."
"This lackluster eight-episode misfire often comes across more like the inverse of the once Kevin Spacey-led Netflix political drama… even with a thruster rocket full of inspirational motivations and overly meticulous visuals, The First really doesn’t have anything new to say, up close or in the big picture," pans Deadline.
Willimon’s future is a sleek vision of high-tech eyeglasses and voice-activated everything… 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," says EW.com.
"By the time Willimon sets his sights to the sky, you’re going to have a hard time saying goodbye to Earth; the weight of leaving is so deeply felt throughout Season 1, that the ecstasy of escape is the only way to balance it out. The First provides both, and that’s about as close as most of us can get to feeling like an astronaut," notes Indiewire while adding that future seasons will likely delve more into the journey to Mars and the colonization effort in future seasons.
The first season of The First drops in full on Hulu this Friday.