Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

'The First' Is an Earnest Hero Story

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

'The First' Is an Earnest Hero Story

Article excerpt

There's no better proof that the antihero age of modern television finally may be waning than Hulu's new astronaut drama "The First," which is now streaming.

Created by "House of Cards" showrunner Beau Willimon, "The First" is as earnest as "House of Cards" was cynical. "The First" is a surprisingly straight-arrow drama with a damaged hero, astronaut Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn), at its center.

Set in a relatively near future (2033) characterized by small changes to everyday objects - slightly futuristic versions of cars, flashlights, eyeglasses and cigarettes - "The First" is more interested in character and relationship development than it is in the adventure of the first manned mission to Mars. That quest is part of the show, too, but it seems like a secondary concern to the show's producers.

The primary focus through the early episodes is on Tom as a former astronaut - he was the 13th person to talk on the moon when humans returned there sometime in the 2020s - and his relationship with his daughter, Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron), following the death of his wife. There's also a lot of time spent on world building.

Vista, a private company headed by Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone, "Designated Survivor"), conducts space launches in cooperation with NASA (think: a fictional Space X and Laz is the fictional equivalent of Elon Musk).

In early episodes, Tom is an outsider looking in. By episode three - following a lot of political inquiry characterized, ultimately, by deal-making and cooperation as opposed to scheming and obstructionism - Tom is back to work, training with a team of astronauts that includes Kayla, a lesbian commander (LisaGay Hamilton, "The Practice") who is gutted by the need to cut a crew member.

Dramas devoted to astronauts - in space or at home on the ground - have a long history, whether they are historical miniseries (HBO's 1998 "From the Earth to the Moon," ABC's 2015 summer series "The Astronaut Wives Club") or strictly fiction (the syndicated 1996-97 syndicated drama "The Cape").

Compared to National Geographic Channel's "Mars," especially its upcoming soapier second season, "The First" is more grounded and heartfelt. Some viewers may find "The First" too slow, especially in the first two episodes, but it becomes more engrossing as it unfurls, especially when the show's scope broadens out from Tom and explores the other characters.

'Thomas' gets woke?

The "Thomas & Friends" exhibit has moved on from the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh. The derailed Thomas train ride at Kennywood is still not back on track, pending a state inspection. But Pittsburgh's littlest train buffs can tune into a new "Thomas & Friends" TV series next week.

The show, which used to air as part of the PBS Kids lineup, has relocated to Nickelodeon for "Thomas & Friends: Big World! Big Adventures! The Series" (9 a.m. Monday).

In this new iteration of "Thomas," which began with a movie on Nickelodeon earlier this month, Thomas leaves his longtime home on the Island of Sodor to embark on travels around the world, making friends with engines of all nationalities. (Half the new episodes stay in Sodor; half go abroad.)

Producers for the Mattel series collaborated with the United Nations' 17 Sustainable Development Goals (health, gender equality, education) and the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, who advised on a new character, Nia.

"Thomas & Friends" has long suffered from a dearth of female series regulars.

"There's no hiding from that," acknowledged senior producer Ian McCue. He said 30 to 40 percent of the show's audience is made up of girls, and producers wanted the series to be more inclusive. "We had six boys and one girl [engine as series leads]. Poor old Emily has to sit with the five boys all the time. So we decided to move two boys out to get a better gender balance."

New engines Nia and Rebecca join returning engine Emily in Tidmouth Sheds alongside Thomas, James, Percy and Gordon. …

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