Beau Willimon seems to be atoning for “House of Cards” with his new Hulu series “The First.” Whereas Netflix’s first big hit, about to enter its final season, often focused on the worst about humanity — not just evil but ambition, greed and weakness — his new show “The First” reminds us of the best about us.
The series, which premieres Friday on Hulu, is a drama centered on the first manned mission to Mars. Set some 15 years in a very dire future, “The First” makes the case that despite our current political and environmental crises, all is not lost, and people can come together for a higher, nobler purpose.
People may be at their best when they bounce back from adversity, and “The First” starts from a low point, as the first attempt at sending astronauts to Mars goes tragically wrong. Anyone who was watching television in 1986 will feel queasy echoes of the Challenger mission in these scenes.
After the tragedy, the government threatens to cut all funding to Vista, the private corporation (similar to Elon Musk’s SpaceX) behind the Mars mission. Vista’s CEO Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone) is desperate to salvage the mission, thinking that colonization of Mars may be humankind’s last hope. She enlists Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn), the astronaut who had been scheduled to lead the failed mission until he was replaced.
Penn’s casting is the big draw here, and the Oscar-winning actor is an unlikely but potent choice to play an aging American hero, a no-nonsense guy who serves as a father figure to his crew. But his best scenes come with Hagerty’s teenage daughter (Anna Jacoby-Heron), an addict who has come home to repair their relationship. That Hagerty has to decide whether to leave her to go into space is as gripping a storyline as whether the mission will succeed.
Despite the presence of self-driving cars and “smart” homes, “The First” is too earthbound to feel like science fiction. Instead, at least in this first season, it focuses on the personalities and real-world politics the characters have to navigate in order to do great things. When so many streaming shows (especially Hulu’s own “Handmaid’s Tale”) focus on the darkness, “The First” offers a substance that seems in short supply these days — optimism.
Also on streaming: In the turbulence of Middle Eastern politics, only one man has been declared a national hero by both Egypt and Israel. Ashraf Marwan was a top Egyptian official in the early 1970s, when war was brewing between Egypt and Israel. Desperate for peace, Marwan became an informant for Israeli intelligence, trying to manipulate both governments behind the scenes into negotiating with each other.
The new Netflix movie “The Angel,” which premieres Friday, looks at the high-stakes game he played, with Marwan Kenzari very effective as the driven Marwan. Director Ariel Vromen (“The Iceman”) deftly maps out the geopolitical stage Marwan was working on, and the danger he faced from both sides. But the film is less successful at the human level. Supporting characters, such as Marwan’s Israeli contact (Toby Kebbell) seem hastily drawn, and the dialogue often feels stilted.
Fans of “Fawlty Towers” will rejoice that, over 40 years later, John Cleese is making a return to series television. In “Hold the Sunset,” Cleese and Alison Steadman play an elderly couple whose retirement plans are disrupted when one of their adult children moves back in with them. The series premieres Wednesday on Britbox.