I suspect that Channel 4 might be a little disappointed that their screening of The First doesn't seem to have captured the public's imagination. I'd seen a couple of reviews after the first episode that tended to lean heavily on the "Sean Penn's show fails to lift off" line, which is about the angle you'd expect a busy TV reviewer who had only seen the first episode to go with.[note]In that first episode, we spent the first twenty minutes watching a crew head off on what's intended to be the first manned mission to Mars but without the show's biggest star on the crew. Those poor, doomed nobodies were never getting to where they wanted to go, and the only question was whether they'd fall short of their goal - say, making their way into orbit but finding some malfunction that demanded a mission abort - or whether they'd find themselves starring in an unnervingly realistic remake of the Challenger disaster. Unfortunately for them, it was the latter.[/note]
The show was originally made for Hulu, and having looked around online I've found a number of reactions from critics who've seen all eight episodes in the first season. Clearly the show isn't imminently going to find itself canonised as part of the Golden Age of Quality Television, but it sounds a lot more promising than you'd think from the reaction to the first couple of episodes. As Todd VanDerWerff puts it in his review of the show for Vox:
This is not a show about the people going to Mars. It’s a show about the people going to Mars.
As I understand it, the show's only just going to start the journey to Mars at the end of the first season, which is not to say that it's pointless prior to that. Sean Penn's character, an experienced astronaut.[note]He's a naval officer and a veteran of a manned mission to the Moon that wasn't Apollo, so in this alternate universe do we have a permanent lunar base?[/note] He finds himself bonding with the relatives of the doomed crew (who had been his crew until his being unseated as the team's leader for reasons we've not gone into as of episode 2) in the wake of the accident, and making the case through the media for a manned space programme earnestly but with a certain gravitas it seems he's earned through his previous space exploits, all while he's also dealing with the recent return into his life of his estranged daughter, who has had her share of problems and is still coming to terms with the disappearance of her mother, his wife, a few years ago.[note]Again, the reviews suggest that there's a fair bit more background about this to come in episode 5.[/note] Penn is a more than capable lead for this show, and I suspect that by the time we get to episode eight he'll have cemented himself as the rock against whom a good cast[note]Including Natascha McElhone and from episode 3 onwards, Keko Agena[/note] have assembled to tell a good, mature story. It probably won't be the flashiest of stories, but it could be something special given time.