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Hilary Swank stars in Away

Hilary Swank stars in Away
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

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Netflix’s Away depicts humanity’s first, perilous mission to Mars, but it’s not a gritty sci-fi drama like Star Trek: Picard. It’s more West Wing: NASA, with smart, passionate people working together to solve problems. Everyone’s well-intentioned, fundamentally decent, and capable. There are no villains, only complicated situations. When someone suggests it’s better for an astronaut to die in space a hero than return home a coward, the argument feels profound, not diabolical. This makes the series dramatically frustrating at times, but given our current social and political climate, it’s also refreshing.

Two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank is Emma Green, an American astronaut in command of the Mars-bound Atlas. It’s not clear when the series takes place, but even the most optimistic real-world estimates don’t place humans on Mars until the early 2030s. Away offers no hints that this is a world 15 years or more in the future. At times, it feels as if it’s set 15 years in the past, or at least the pre-COVID-19 past: People gather in crowds to watch their kids play soccer. Schools and churches are open. Friends hug and serve each other drinks at parties. That all seems very far away now.

Emma’s crew is made up of Russian cosmonaut Misha (Mark Ivanir), Indian medical officer and second-in-command Ram (Ray Panthaki), English civilian botanist Kwesi (Ato Essandoh), and Chinese taikonaut Lu (Vivian Wu). If the mission’s successful, Lu will be the first person to set foot on the red planet. It seems inconceivable that the primarily U.S.-funded mission would permit a non-American this historic honor, but there’s no political backlash or complaints from shouty cable news hosts about how a weak U.S. president let this happen. Forget Mars—the Earth in Away feels like another planet.

Here’s the biggest problem with an otherwise enjoyable series: Each crew member is more interesting, with more compelling backstory, than Emma, the show’s focal point. It rarely seems like she wants to be on this mission, let alone lead it, which Lu calls her out on in a tense moment. Emma almost relinquishes command before the mission’s even started, and when her supervisor Darlene (Gabrielle Rose) warns her how it would look if the first woman commander quit for personal reasons, she dismisses the concern as “feminist bullshit.” That contrasts starkly with Lu and even Misha, who never forget the duty they have to the people they represent. Emma’s constant second thoughts don’t feel realistic for a veteran astronaut. This can’t be the first time she’s spent an extended period away from her family—such feelings would be more understandable from a rookie like Kwesi.

Ato Essandoh, Ray Panthaki, and Vivian Wu in Away

Ato Essandoh, Ray Panthaki, and Vivian Wu in Away
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

There’s a Friday Night Lights feel to the life Emma leaves behind on Earth, which makes sense because executive producer Jason Katims worked on that series as well. Emma’s husband, Matt (Josh Charles), is a former astronaut with a medical condition that denied him the stars. He suffers a debilitating physical setback in the first episode and spends the series struggling to adjust while also solo parenting their teenage daughter, Alexis (Talitha Bateman). Charles carries the series during its quieter moments. As Matt navigates the confines of a “new normal” (yes, they use that term), he seamlessly journeys through despair, frustration, rage, and hope—he could be at the center of his own series.

The same is true for Kwesi, Misha, and Lu. Kwesi is the emotional heart of the show, and the excellent Essandoh makes it impossible for anyone not to like him. He’s loyal, considerate, with an infectious passion for his work. His adjustments to space travel are a source of lighthearted humor, even when his body reacts in unpleasant ways. Misha is the “cowboy” member of the Atlas, quick with a biting quip that masks a gentle spirit. (He and Kwesi put on a puppet show for his grandkids!) Ivanir gives him depth, as we learn what he’s lost, and is still losing, for this mission. Wu is a revelation as Lu: She’s stoic but never cold, decisive but not heartless. She’s sacrificed the most emotionally for this mission but is the most determined to see it through. She’s the one crew member who never puts the Atlas at risk, either unintentionally or recklessly.

Hilary Swank, Josh Charles, and Talitha Bateman

Hilary Swank, Josh Charles, and Talitha Bateman
Photo: Diyah Pera (Netflix

Unfortunately, despite a solid performance from Panthaki, Ram struggles as a character because he’s designed to function as Emma’s “Number One,” her closest confidant, and the series never delivers on their relationship. Emma tells Ram that she likes to keep her personal and professional lives separate. That’s a fair practice in real life, but it isolates Emma from the crew (and the audience) without revealing anything new about her. We get to see Lu with someone she loves deeply on Earth and how that contrasts with the stoic, driven Lu on board the Atlas. Emma is not that different when at home, perhaps because so many of her flashbacks show her in periods of emotional distress. It’s also unclear if Emma keeps Ram at a distance because inappropriate romantic feelings are developing and she’s drawing a line. That could’ve been interesting to explore, but Away isn’t the type of series where people cross ethical or moral lines. The closest we come is when a crew member conceals a personal disability.

There’s a scene during the Christmas episode when Emma is once again spiraling into self-pity. She asks Lu how she copes with the separation from her loved ones. “You always seem so stalwart,” Emma says. Lu’s contempt for Emma’s remarks is obvious, but she patiently sets her straight—a sign of a true leader. “We are about to be the first human beings to set foot on Mars. I look that way. You’re looking in the wrong direction, Commander Green.” At times it seems like the series is trying for a Spock/Kirk dynamic between Lu and Emma (though at least Kirk’s top priority on Star Trek is always the Enterprise and its crew.) Lu is overtly analytical like Spock, but she also intuitively understands people, their strengths and weaknesses. When she tells the crew that for the next three years, her husband is their son’s sole parent, you can tell that she has confronted this devastating reality. She doesn’t seek to deny it, as Emma does, and that enables her to focus on the mission, gaining the crew’s admiration and respect. It’s not the only time that Lu feels like the true commander of the Atlas, offering a look at a more compelling version of the series, one in which its leader confronts their demons head on instead of being in perpetual denial.

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