Editor’s Note: This review originally published Friday, August 28, 2020
While watching Away, Netflix’s sweeping series about the first mission to Mars, I thought about The West Wing a lot. The drama, which ran on NBC from 1999-2006, has been a bit of a respite during these pandemic times. Perhaps it’s our nostalgia for a time when network dramas were at their peak. Perhaps it’s a longing for a compassionate, intelligent President. Or a wistfulness to return to a simpler time.
Over the past few decades prestige television has taken a turn. Dramas are darker and complex with dense plot lines, antiheroes, and a plethora of characters you need a flowchart to keep track of. There’s a notion that perhaps feel good, inspirational dramas aren’t as important or worthy of praise.
I’m here to tell you that’s incorrect. Away is a 10-episode crowd pleaser. It’s a blockbuster TV series during a time when blockbuster movies aren’t in theaters (or at least they shouldn’t be). Hilary Swank headlines as American astronaut Emma Green. She leaves her husband Matt Logan (Josh Charles) and her 15-year-old daughter Lex (Talitha Bateman) to command a three-year mission to Mars, heading up an international crew comprised of Russian astronaut Misha Popov (Mark Ivanir), British botanist Dr. Kwesi Weisberg-Abban (Ato Essandoh), Indian astronaut Ram Arya (Ray Panthaki), and Chinese chemist and astronaut Lu Wang (Vivian Wu).
The series is awe-inspiring in scope, and the scenes in space are gorgeous. Knowledge of the particulars of space travel is woven throughout the narrative, both what’s possible and the daily physical struggles astronauts endure. The special effects are so precise and authentic you feel like you are in space with the astronauts. (Although, of note, I drop cell phone calls every time I pull into my driveway but Emma and crew have few issues face-timing on their way to the moon, the mission’s first stop.) And while the series so accurately simulates a gravity-free environment, it struggles to find wigs that didn’t look fake for Emma and Matt’s flashback scenes.
Executive producer Jason Katims perfected the art of feel-good TV with series including Friday Night Lights and Parenthood. He knows it’s the little moments that make the big moments important and that interpersonal drama drives a series. Like in any workplace environment, the crew of the Atlas squabbles. Misha, the astronaut with the most experience, constantly questions Emma’s decisions. Lu, who has to hide so much of herself from the world, has little tolerance for how Emma lets her emotions affect her. Ram gets frustrated by the risks Emma is willing to take and Kwesi must deal with being on his first space mission. At first it seems like the series is leaning too far into the stereotypes about the countries the astronauts are from. But as the series progresses, their outer façades are peeled back to reveal a more complex, nuanced characters. The notion that countries and people can work together to achieve greatness is the consistent and very welcomed undercurrent to the series, making the drama not only inspirational but aspirational.
Like The West Wing, the characters give grand speeches without being cheesy; Away walks the narrow line between being an authentic drama that pulls you in and an over-the-top schmaltz fest. A lot of that credit goes to Swank, who is saddled with a lot of the stirring dialogue and monologues. Like Martin Sheen, Swank brings such authenticity to everything she says that you believe her instead of wanting to roll your eyes. Bateman is also particularly effective as a teenager struggling with all that is happening around her and trying to find her place in it.
Of course, an issue-free mission to Mars doesn’t make for compelling television. So in every episode there is a major and often life-threatening issue for the crew to deal with. This could try our patience as the seasons progress (much like June’s almost-escapes from Gilead have on The Handmaid’s Tale). But for the inaugural 10 episodes it works perfectly, particularly the taut middle episode that have the crew facing a daunting crisis.
The show’s structure is one pioneered by Lost and continued in shows like The Handmaid’s Tale, where each episode shows the drama and crisis in the present day interspersed with a backstory on each of the five astronauts. This storytelling device is particularly effective here as it saves the show from the claustrophobic feeling of always being on the space shuttle or in the control room, and provides organic insight to each’s characters motivation for being on that rocket.
There’s a scene in one of the later episodes where the show flashes back to when Emma learned she was pregnant with Lex. Matt tells her being a mom will make her a better astronaut. “Not it won’t,” she tells him. The show continually returns to the theme of all that the astronauts have sacrificed to be there, and what their absences mean to their families. Too often we put forth the false narrative that women can “have it all,” when in reality life is always about choices and sacrifices. Away understands that being an astronaut doesn’t make Emma a better or worse mother, it makes her a mother who is an astronaut. It’s a through line the show explores effectively.
Still, Emma is a woman in charge, and dealing with that includes leaving her daughter for three pivotal years and working with men who think they know more than her. I loved the subtle nods to her career being her own (she seems to have not changed her last name when she married Matt) but was frustrated by the show needing to justify why it’s Emma going into space and not her NASA-engineer husband. If the genders were reversed, would the show have had to explain why it was the man and not the woman going into space? It’s these subtle small things that seep into our culture and continue to support gender-based stereotypes.
Despite this, just like a The West Wing rewatch gives us the President we need at this stressful time in our history, Away manages to be a fine escapist, inspirational series—one that provides an opportunity to at least feel away if we can’t actually be away.
All 10 episodes of Away are now available on Netflix.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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