Roush Review: Spectacular Streaming on Hulu (‘The First’) and Amazon (‘Forever’)

The First -Sean Penn, LisaGay Hamilton
Paul Schiraldi/Hulu

Most science fiction can be classified as fantasy. Not so with Hulu’s The First, which is all too painfully real in its emotionally grounded human drama.

“When it comes to Mars, we must get used to death,” declares Laz Ingram (a nuanced Natascha McElhone, late of Designated Survivor), the visionary CEO of Vista, a private company working with NASA to launch the first manned flight to the red planet. She’s trying to satisfy a skeptical journalist’s concerns that the risks are worth the rewards of exploration. The crew members need less convincing—and in their stories, this eight-episode series created by Beau Willimon (House of Cards) has all the right stuff.

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Sean Penn, in his first TV series regular role, delivers a tremendously affecting performance as Providence commander Tom Hagerty, who aims to rejoin the team after a private tragedy. A man who feels closest to Earth when observing it from hundreds of thousands of miles above, Tom weighs personal ambition against the needs of his adored but troubled daughter, Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron, who mostly transcends angsty cliché).

Tom’s refreshingly diverse cohorts include the marvelous LisaGay Hamilton as an accomplished astronaut chafing at the new chain of command and Hannah Ware as a science specialist who may lack the essential survival skills for this voyage. “I need people who are going to do the hard thing,” Tom insists. Though nothing may be harder, The First argues, than the burden felt by those left behind as their loved ones reach for the stars.

The First -- "Separation" - Episode 101 - On launch day, Vista CEO Laz Ingram and the Providence crew count down to the first manned mission to Mars. Former mission commander Tom Hagerty watches from home. After an intense day he is confronted by an unexpected visitor. Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn), shown. (Photo by: Paul Schiraldi/Hulu)

Sean Penn in The First. (Paul Schiraldi/Hulu)

There are subtle futuristic touches, including supersmart homes, suggesting this is happening decades from now, but the series mostly avoids the fantastic. It fascinates with a contemporary authenticity—although one self-consciously artsy voiceover narrative device is so distracting I wish it had been scrubbed.

As the countdown to launch proceeds, the focus is as much on the explorers’ turbulent inner space as on what awaits them in outer space. Some genre fans may gripe it takes the show too long to achieve liftoff, but that’s the point. Nothing comes quickly or easily when the stakes are this high: Just watch Vista and NASA engineers sweat out a looming deadline as they try to reconnect with the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle) that will in theory bring these heroes home. Getting there is only half the journey.

The First, Series Premiere, Friday, September 14, Hulu

My One and Only


You’ll have to trust me when I say there’s never been a romantic comedy quite like Forever, which also drops Friday, on Amazon Prime Video. I can’t go into too much detail, because there’s a sense of constant discovery and surprise in these eight magically sublime, funny-sad episodes that go beyond the realm of spoiler alerts.

From Alan Yang and Matt Hubbard, whose credits include the amusingly moving Master of None and quirky Parks and Recreation, this series explores the joys and challenges in the long-term marriage-without-children of Oscar (Fred Armisen), a mild-mannered dentist, and June (Maya Rudolph), his restless wife.

These Saturday Night Live veterans share an easy, enjoyable rapport amid the numbing rut of repetition, but everything shifts after June urges a change in their annual vacation routine from a fishing trip to a skiing getaway, and when things start going sideways, dares to ask aloud, “Don’t you ever wonder what the purpose of everything is?”

This sets the couple on an existential journey like no other, one that’s still universal in how it poignantly and humorously confronts the big issues of life and love. “People aren’t meant to be alone,” an outsider observes, and Forever finds enchanting new ways to see if that is so. I loved every minute of it.

Forever, Series Premiere, Friday, September 14, Amazon Prime Video