The Netflix series Away doesn’t immediately look classifiable as science fiction. It’s set in a present very much like ours, with all the same smartphones and fashions and international tensions. It’s just that in the show’s universe, NASA already has its act together enough to be sending its first manned mission to Mars.
The expedition is led by American Commander Emma Green (Hilary Swank) and supported by an international crew: the UK’s Kwesi (Ato Essandoh), Russia’s Misha (Mark Ivanir), India’s Ram (Ray Panthaki), and China’s Lu (Vivian Wu). The ten-part season charts the beginning of their unprecedented three-year journey to the red planet.
The action aboard their ship is riveting. No space adventure worth its weight in rocket fuel isn’t plagued by complications, and this one delivers. A near-disastrous chemical spill in the first episode sets the trip off to a rocky start and seemingly delineates the boundaries of trust and distrust among the diverse crew.
But as the mission drifts further and further away from Earth and the dangers keep on coming, things begin to shift. New alliances are forged, old ones are broken, and the wonder and terror of space weigh constantly on everyone’s mind.
There’s plenty of drama, both interpersonal and technical, and all of it is remarkably believable; small hitches snowball into possible catastrophes, as they must in a tiny, sealed-off pocket of air. The ways in which the members of the crew work together and against each other are fascinating, exciting, and always in flux. There’s worry, and tension, and a surprising amount of all-out fun.
It’s easy to care about these people and to find joy in their interactions. Each character gets one flashback-heavy episode explaining where they’ve come from and the sacrifices they’ve made to get to their present situation. This style, while a little formulaic, does swift work to flesh the characters out, to contextualize why they behave the way they do. It informs who they are as people, but it doesn’t weigh them down.
The scenes on the ship work. They are, in the simplest of terms, a collection of interesting characters in a pressure cooker environment. And watching them is far more gratifying than paying attention to whatever’s happening back on Earth. Unfortunately, Earth is where we spend a good half of our viewing time.
By the end of the first episode, the ship is off the ground, which means the remaining nine installments cover the voyage itself, but they also split the drama evenly between the crew and the people they’ve left behind. Most of the focus is placed on Emma’s relationship with her teenage daughter, Alexis (Talitha Eliana Bateman), and her would-be-astronaut husband, Matt (Josh Charles). No small amount of tension relies on how this family copes with the distance or how they balance their worry for each other with their own closer-to-home problems.
That’s too bad because that tension is by far the least interesting part of the show. Alexis and Matt are nice. They’re very, very nice. They love Emma dearly, and they’re worried sick about her. They have their own demons, which they grapple with and eventually put aside to support each other. They hit every necessary emotional beat. But it’s not particularly gripping.
Emma’s relationship with her family remains static, resulting in a kind of overexposure to yearning. You can only watch so many heartfelt Facetime sessions before you start to get inured to it. And you do see a lot of them.
That’s the problem: Emma is in near-constant contact with her family. It’s an odd choice for a show that’s meant to explore distance and longing. She has an honest-to-god space cell phone, and boy does she use it. In one particularly memorable scene, she calls Alexis, from space, to confront her about getting a ‘C’ on a test.
No one else on the ship seems nearly as keyed into the lives of the people they left behind. Especially juxtaposed with another crew member’s desperate, final phone call to a loved one back home, Emma’s communication feels especially indulgent. The very picture of an over-involved helicopter parent. Or, in this case, space shuttle parent.
What’s unclear is if this is a deliberate commentary on the part of the show or inadvertent characterization. Is Emma’s constant contact and integration with the lives of her family, even from space, meant to remark on her very white Type-A Americanness? Or is it just a part of the story?
To be perfectly frank, I couldn’t tell. After watching the entire season, I’m still not sure I can tell. All I know is that I found it grating. And that, in this show that’s ostensibly about an astronaut missing what she’s left behind on Earth, I found myself far more invested in the relationships, and the dangers, that she brought with her.
Away might linger too long on its family element, and it might not make that element lively enough to warrant all that time spent. But it does otherwise tell a pretty gripping tale of five astronauts hurtling into the unknown and struggling to survive, with some delightful performances. For that, it’s worth a try.
Away drops on Netflix on September 4th.