The First review – Sean Penn’s Mars drama fails to launch

As Sean Penn runs sleeveless up and down his neighbourhood as astronaut Tom Haggerty in The First (the actor’s first – ha! – regular TV role) the thought arrives unbidden that you could add the body fat of him and his erstwhile love Madonna together and still not have enough to fry an egg. There is plenty of time to mull over such non-pressing issues as the secret diet and exercise regimes that gift the rich and famous with such extraordinary leanness as you watch the first episode of The First, because almost nothing happens in the first episode of The First.

We are some time in the near future. The clothes and cars look the same, but everything is voice activated by software that actually works. Tom is a seasoned astronaut due to captain Earth’s first manned mission to Mars but who is stood down at the last minute by his boss, a visionary aerospace lady magnate, Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone).

We pause here for a couple more mullable thoughts.

One: I am glad to see that someone in the near future has finally figured out what to do with McElhone’s fringe. It has been a distraction ever since The Truman Show and at times has threatened to require separate billing. Hairstylists of 2030-ish, I salute you.

Two: is the fact that Ingram is northern an intriguing clue to something – does the Cheshire town Prestbury, in the next 12 or so years, in an unforeseen twist of Britain’s post-Brexit fate, become some kind of aeronautical powerhouse? Or has all of the UK fled to the land of opportunity because, in a more foreseen non-twist of our post-Brexit fate, we become an uninhabitable bin fire of a nation? Or is this McElhone’s deliberate character choice? Does she think, as a Surrey girl, that all northerners are as emotionally awkward and socially gauche as the icy CEO Ingram is?

Three: is it an absolutely unbreakable law that an astronaut being stood down at the last minute means he will shortly be watching the flight he would have been on explode beautifully against a clear blue sky? And that the family and friends gathered on the bleacher below watch helplessly as triumph turns – in a matter of moments – to tragedy and the realisation that we are all as flies to the wanton gods is seared for ever into their souls?

Natascha McElhone as Laz Ingram in The First Photograph: Paul Schrimaldi/Hulu

The crew gathers slowly in the rocket’s front bit. They banter in a way that reveals them to be a fun yet close yet respectful group of sensitive yet hyperintelligent and now surely doomed buddies. Then Tom puts the final narrative nail in their pressurised coffin by calling them to tell them they are the best crew – fun, you know? Yet close, yet respectful, and so sensitive! – the mission could have and wish them well.

Yeah, they explode against an azure sky. Quietly, and almost incidentally. Ain’t no one going to Mars this episode.

Tom leaps into action, heading down to the launch (he was at home watching it on television in order to contain his fatless feelings about being dumped) and clears the party room of its balloons and streamers so the families have somewhere to gather that doesn’t feel like it is taking the piss. He is there to greet the bereaved with hugs when they come in from the bleachers. Because he is the very goodest of guys, capiche?

In vain does he try to teach Ingram some of his warm, American, good-guy ways, but she Cannot Hug and Will Not Learn. However, her icy demeanour (© TV lady magnates everywhere) hides turmoil in her breast; she tries to get her near-future car to drive over her but its inbuilt safety mechanism prevents it. And they call it progress!

Pause for thought again – have they called her Laz to echo Lazarus, as a new mission to Mars is planned? Really?

Meanwhile, Tom goes home and takes a razor to his beard of self-pity with the aid of some Deepening Resolution shaving foam and sets his jaw in preparation for whatever the rest of the series has in store for him; an agglomeration of slickly executed, gloriously uninvolving scenes he will continue to phone in, or a gradual evolution into an ensemble character piece that uses all the talent involved, who presumably didn’t sign up to remain ciphers throughout? Whichever it is, it will now involve the junkie daughter who turns up in the closing minutes. Tom holds her hair back while she is sick, then goes out for a run while he cries. Goodest Guy is Goodest Dad.

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