When I was reviewing A Million Little Things, and I thought about how hard it is for networks to do a good drama without a procedural hook of lawyers or doctors to keep it going each week with a new plot, in the back of my mind, I was thinking about Defying Gravity. The show ran a couple of years ago and the premise was a group of astronauts making a grand looping trip of all the planets. There was a hidden plot about an alien device that is directing and controlling their progress, but at the heart, it was The Right Stuff on steroids.
As I was doing my predictions, I saw that Hulu had a show about the first astronauts on Mars. I’m into space and astronomy, sure, which is a good basis for potential excitement but the reality is that there are four basic steps for them…launch in dramatic fashion, fly slowly and boringly to Mars, explore and collect some samples, and fly back. Sure, we can have an Apollo 13 emergency, radiation drills, whatever, but it isn’t Star Trek. If you don’t leave the solar system, space travel doesn’t get very exciting to watch. So I predicted cancellation.
I’ve now watched the first (no pun intended) episode of the series, and it is not what I expected. Spoiler alert, but the rocket fails and all the astronauts are lost. I was watching cold, no idea what to expect, but as soon as they focused on the “Go with throttle up” and beginning the separation sequence, I knew I was right — the launch would explode. And it did. Raining debris and cliché everywhere.
So they’re not going to Mars, they’re not on Mars, this is a drama set on Earth about building rockets and dealing with the aftermath of a disaster, while hanging out hope of a new flight. Yet the first episode worked.
Sean Penn is the crew commander who got dumped earlier and thus wasn’t on the flight, looking beyond buff but old, every ounce of his 58 years showing in his face. When he first appeared, I briefly thought it was Tom Skerritt (who is 85, just saying). He’s pretty muted through the whole episode, not a lot of emotion showing, but he is also alone for most of it, no one to play off of during the event.
Natascha McElhone plays the leader of the company that built the ship for NASA, and she is beyond muted for the whole episode. A walking automaton almost, as she tries to hold it together in the face of the loss. Sure, it’s better than her more flamboyant role on Designated Survivor as the President’s wife, one of the few shows I’ve seen her in previously, but hopefully she’ll come alive at some point.
Beyond those two, it’s hard to tell from Episode 1 which other characters will prove important. Two are recognizable. LisaGay Hamilton (The Practice) is some sort of military officer, perhaps NASA liaison background, working for the company. Oded Fehr is the engineer who designed the launch vehicles, and without the accent he used for Mossad agent Eyal Levine for Covert Affairs, I had trouble recognizing him. I hope he’s big, really like him.
Season 1 is only 8 episodes and I’m in. And I’m going to give it some props…I predicted cancellation originally, but I’m going to predict Hulu gives it another season. It’s hard to tell from only one episode, but it looks pretty sharp, albeit muted still. Heck, I’m willing to give it a shot based on one line from the writers. After the explosion, the daughter of one of the astronauts innocently asks, “Who gets to decide who dies?”. Powerful stuff.