If you like the wonder and excitement of space exploration juxtaposed against the tedium of workplace drama and weepy family dilemmas, is Netflix’s new series Away ever the show for you. It’s by turn awe-inspiring, thrilling, and sleep-inducing.
The series follows the world’s first attempt to land people on Mars. Led by American astronaut Emma Green (Hilary Swank), the joint international team includes Russian cosmonaut Misha (Mark Ivanir), who has logged more time in space than any other human; brash Indian pilot Ram (Ray Panthaki); Kwesi (Ato Essandoh), a botanist and space virgin; and Yu (Vivian Wu), a standoffish Chinese chemist with motivations and loyalties that don’t always jibe with the overall team.
Every member of the crew must make sacrifices, leaving behind lives and loved ones on Earth for their three-year trek to the Red Planet. Away dedicates the bulk of this to Emma’s family. There’s her husband Matt (Josh Charles), who has a rare medical condition called CCM (Cerebral Cavernous Malformation, which is a brutal name for a disease) that prevents him from going into space. The couple also has a daughter, Alexis (Talitha Bateman), who’s sad to see her mom leave for three years. The show sprinkles in details and specifics for the other members of the team as needed for backstory and tension.
These are the two primary elements of Away, one of which is fantastic, while the other is much less so. Try and guess which is which.
When Away sticks to the space side of the story, that’s when it’s at its best, by far. This is a big, expensive endeavor for Netflix. As a result it looks slick and gorgeous. The special effects are tip top and they do a great job capturing the jaw-dropping spectacle of a manned mission to Mars. As the crew deals with monster-of-the-week technical problems, there’s tension and pressure galore. Their various endeavors in space drive home the peril they face, how one false move is all it takes and it’s all over for everyone, and it’s often edge-of-your-seat thrilling.
This is where the stakes are highest and most palpable. And for the most part, the surrounding interpersonal drama sucks the energy from the room.
It’s fine, and there’s nothing terribly egregious going on in Away, but there’s nothing particularly engaging or interesting either. There’s conflict on the job as the crew members, as well as people on the ground, question and doubt Emma’s qualifications and abilities—some because she’s a woman, others because of her experience. Back at home, her family must come to grips with being apart for so long, not to mention the stroke that leaves Matt incapacitated in the first episode. Because in a show about a mission to Mars, what you really want to watch is a dude rehab on Earth. This part of the show plays like the plot of a prime time network drama and pales in comparison to the rest.
Away put together a strong cast and everyone does good work. Multiple Oscar-winner Swank gives Emma a driven edge that leads her to push boundaries and safety. Charles plays the dutiful husband and father, supporting his wife, while nursing the hurt of his own crushed dreams. Ivanir’s Misha is gruff and surly, but only in service to the greater mission and his bluster masks a deep investment. Yu hides her secrets, but Wu wears them on her face. Essandoh infuses Kwesi the sheer wonder and terror of floating weightless in space for the first time. And while Ram is cocky and bold, Panthanki conveys his underlying insecurities and his own specific doubts.
As Away progresses and moves farther from Earth, a pattern emerges. There’s an obstacle to overcome, usually something that will end the ship’s total destruction and usually something that requires the specific skills of one member of the team. In fending off death one more time, Emma and this crew member come to terms with one another. At the same time, however, this often causes friction with someone else. And so on.
The true story of Netflix’s Away isn’t the conflict between the characters on screen, it’s the conflict between what makes it special and stand out and what makes it feel like season three of a middle-of-the-road CBS drama. One part is spectacular, visually dazzling, and just the kind of big, expansive sci-fi genre fans love to see; the other, a lukewarm attempt at prestige TV on Netflix, slightly elevated by a good cast, but settling only a few ticks above soap opera pitch.