Death haunts the opening act of The First. The chrome bus that takes the Providence crew out to the launch, the waterside mounted bleachers where the families watch and, most of all, the skittering angles of the SRBs after the ship explodes in mid-air. Apollo 1 and Challenger, scars on the face of crewed spaceflight evoked respectfully but not painlessly. This is a show built in tragedy and there are times it comes close to using it as a crutch not a foundation.
But for every think you expect, there’s something you don’t see coming. Tom Hagerty, the mission commander who was bounced at the last minute, watches the explosion and then jumps in his hyper macho pickup truck. He doesn’t race to Mission Control or to help with the rescue effort. He races to the hangar where a reception is waiting for the families and helps pull the champagne and balloons off the tables. A quick, desperate hug with a colleague. An acknowledgment of the trauma without looking it in the eyes. The kindness of industriousness and the temporary salve of caring about someone else more than yourself. That’s pretty gutsy territory for a show like this, especially given Hagerty is played by a frequently shirtless, and apparently carved from the wood of the Manly Tree, Sean Penn, an actor not exactly known for emotional self-awareness.
And yet that bass note of kindness echoes through the show. Laz Ingram, played by Natasha Mcelhone is CEO of the company behind the mission and appears superficially glacial and emotionally cut off. But her most interesting scene is with Eitan Hafri, one of the mission’s chief engineers. Played by Oded Fehr with typical grace and depth, Eitan is halfway into trying to understand why the disaster happened before the pieces have finished falling out of the sky. He’s also in the process of building a guilt spiral that drops full responsibility on himself. Laz’s honest, kind moment of encouragement gets him out of it and back to work. In doing so it also reveals the dynamic at the heart of the show; Laz helps people by keeping them moving and working. Tom leads people by ensuring no one gets left behind. There’s inherent conflict there as well as co-dependency.
This all comes to a head in a moment in the second episode. ‘What’s Needed’ is a Hollywood sprint through Congressional oversight committee tropes complete with an overweight senator from the Deep South and lip service paid to the costs of spaceflight over urban renewal. A good chunk of it doesn’t work because it’s so unsurprising. What does is a moment with Tom and the parents of one of the dead astronauts. He shows them footage, shot through his helmet cam, of a training mission in orbit. He shows them their son, happy and at peace doing the job they never approved of. He communicates, viscerally, the emotional and spiritual impact of space travel that no speech on Earth can ever come close to. He gives them digitized grace. A moment inside their son’s world even as he leaves their world behind. It’s breathtaking in its honesty and emotional impact. It’s vastly helped too by Colin Stetson’s soundtrack which balances intimidating and profoundly moving walls of sound with subtle grace notes of piano. Complex, industrious, human music for a complex, industrious, human problem.
The First is trying to take a novelistic approach to a subject that almost demands it and yet has rarely been pulled off successfully. There’s something delightfully meta there; a show about the most difficult thing humanity has ever done, trying something very difficult. But when it works, it WORKS and much like the old astronaut adage, slow is fast here. The accident, the political effort to rebuild, the new crew, personal issues for Ingram and Hagerty. There’s a lot to unpack here and the show is confident enough to do it and do it slowly.
Industriousness. Ingenuity. Courage. Kindness. A refreshing lack of chest-beating even if Penn’s is on display regularly. There’s a real sense of The First trying something if not new then certainly different and I applaud the decision to do it. It’s still figuring out what it is, but much like the traumatized, determined men and women at it’s core, it has no intention of stopping. And right now, I’m along for the ride.
The First is available on Hulu in its entirety now. On Brexit Island, where we probably switched Prime Ministers in the time it took me to write this, it’s being broadcast weekly on Channel 4, Thursdays at 10pm.
This piece originally appeared as part of my weekly newsletter, The Full Lid. If you liked it, and want a weekly down of pop culture enthusiasm, occasional ketchup recipes and me enjoying things, then check out the archive and sign up here.