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AWAY Is a Flawed But Compelling Journey to Mars (Review)

This will sound strange for a sci-fi drama, but by the end of Away‘s debut season I was thinking a lot about Ross from Friends. I had been keeping notes about the Netflix show’s strengths and weaknesses while watching all ten episodes. After the season finale my “flaws” list was pretty extensive. The show focuses on too many characters. It has so much conflict it often feels like a melodrama. And it never really finds the right balance between its story in space and its story back on Earth. And yet, despite its many problems, I was always excited to see the next episode. I became completely invested in the crew’s fate and wish I could watch season two right now.

Because while Away‘s first season isn’t always great, it is always compelling. And as I looked at my list of flaws all I could think about was Ross saying, “She’s not Rachel.”

Away‘s premise follows well-tread ground, but covers it with a different approach. Mankind is attempting its first ever manned-mission to Mars: a multi-nation venture that is far from a guarantee to succeed. The five-member international crew, led by American Commander Emma Green (Hilary Swank), represent the 21st century’s greatest hope.

The season is a deep exploration of the crew members individually and the personal sacrifices that a trip to the Red Planet will require of them. The best case scenario is that they will all be away from their loved ones for three years. That’s the perspective Away is most interested in, from both sides of the journey.

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The show spends a lot of time, more often than not successfully, giving us each astronaut’s backstory. We learn what brought them to this moment, the pains they carry, and their fears and dreams. By the end we know these crew members intimately and we’re rooting for each of them. (Unlike the superficial understanding we get of the crew in The Martian, the movie I couldn’t help but think about while watching.) And that approach is ultimately why Away does feel original; the mission itself is more meaningful because it’s more personal.

Unfortunately, getting to that point is often clunky. No one will say Away is too slow, even with all the time it spends investing in its characters personal stories. There are so many problems, both in space and on Earth, that even Walter White would be exhausted by them. It’s always something! I know a fictional TV show needs conflict to be interesting, but this is why ten episodes were too many. Fewer installments, and therefore fewer absurd issues, would have kept the show from often feeling like a melodrama. Soap operas go entire months without this many plot twists.

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As a result, I frequently questioned how competent the crew was, especially mentally. I certainly hope the first astronauts we really do send to Mars will be better prepared to deal with the heavy emotional toll it will take to go there… and also that they’ll have a better ship. Due to the melodrama, far too often Away doesn’t feel realistic, despite being ostensibly rooted in real science. (I have no idea if the show is scientifically accurate, but since most viewers aren’t Neil deGrasse Tyson, that doesn’t matter as much.)

There are also some problems with developing two of the most important characters, Chinese crew member Lu Wang (Vivian Wu) and former USSR cosmonaut Misha Popov (Mark Ivanir). At first they feel like stereotypes, as though based on a Westerner’s lazy idea of what citizens of communist countries are like. This approach falls short early in the season, but they are eventually presented as nuanced and layered. Ultimately, Lu Wang becomes the most fascinating figure on the show. The entire show could have been about her alone and would have been worth watching. Wu gives a beautiful, moving performance as a mother dealing with personal and professional issues that go far beyond herself.

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Away‘s problems are not confined to space. The show spends an equal amount of time focusing on Emma Green’s NASA engineer husband Matt (Josh Charles) and their teenage daughter Alexis (Talitha Bateman). The Commander leaves Matt and “Lex” when they need her the most; Matt suffers a stroke caused by a genetic disorder that their daughter might also have. And because all the drama on Away is turned up to 100, this happens right before the crew leaves its moon base for Mars.

Over the course of the season, Lex deals with being a teenager, living away from (and then with) her ailing father—whom she’s hiding secrets from—a mother literally millions of miles away, and a nice new boyfriend who is definitely way too old for her. He’s also dealing with the death of his own father. And then there’s the single mother astronaut who must fill Emma’s personal roles on Earth, causing her additional problems.

See? It’s a lot.

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Fortunately, the show’s main characters—even if there are too many of them—are predictably great. Ato Essandoh and Ray Panthaki are superb and eminently likable as astronauts Kwesi and Ram. Charles gives a nuanced, powerful performance as someone in an impossible position trying to be a good dad, husband, and NASA employee, all while dealing with his own major health issues.

Hilary Swank is a two-time Oscar winner for a reason. Emma Green has to be tough and capable to earn command of the first Mars mission. But she’s also struggling with her choice to leave her family behind. She can’t have it all, but everyone wants something different from her. Her impossible position in the world and in her life requires Swank to show off a full range of emotions, which really lets her shine.

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And thanks to her and the rest of the stellar cast, the show achieves what it set out to accomplish. This is a compelling story about the sacrifices made by the people who leave and by the ones left behind. These astronauts are heroes not because of what they are doing, but because of what they gave up to do it. It might sound hokey, but watching people from five different countries try to do the impossible together is hopeful in the best way. They represent a wonderful idea. If, despite our differences, we can go to Mars together then we can learn how to exist and save our planet together.

But doing that will require all of us, everywhere, making big sacrifices. Away has issues. But there’s a reason I was thinking about Ross by the end. Sometimes a TV show’s flaws aren’t as important.

4/5

Featured Image: Netflix

Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike, and also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.