Away season 1 review — a shaky liftoff with a solid landing

August 28, 2020 (Last updated: last month)
M.N. Miller 0
Netflix, TV, TV Reviews
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Netflix’s latest streaming series has its issues, but overall, Away is an engaging series about exploration of life, love, and family, and how when science can’t come up with the answers, faith will fill in the gaps.

This review of Netflix’s Away season 1 is spoiler-free.

I’ve been on the fence about Netflix’s new adventure series, Away, for a week or so now. Most individual episodes work, but not as well as they should. While most of these serialized television efforts come together, they are not necessarily cohesive when it comes to a complete season. The first couple of episodes can be underwhelming and uneven and it doesn’t really hit its stride until midseason. It has a distressing pattern of using a flashback device that becomes less relevant in the second half of the season. Away is not necessarily about straight adventure, but it is more about what drives the characters, the sacrifices they made to take this monumental step. The series is about exploration in science, family, and faith — when science can’t come up with the answers, faith fills in the gaps.

Away season 1 stars Academy Award winner Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby, Boys Don’t Cry) as Emma Green, a United States astronaut who is about to lead a worldwide effort to embark on the first-ever mission to land humans on Mars. She is married to her husband, Matt (The Good Wife’s Josh Charles), a former Air Force pilot who flunked out of the NASA program who has a neurological condition called CCM. They have a 15-year-old daughter, Alexis (Talitha Bateman), and she won’t return to them for three years. Her team consists of the most experienced astronaut in the world, (unless George Clooney’s Matt Kowalski is still alive and floating around somewhere), Misha (Barry’s Mark Ivanir), a Russian cosmonaut, who thinks he should be leading the team, but the United States is footing the bill. They are also bringing along Kwesi (Copper’s Ato Essendoh), the world’s leading botanist who wants to prove not only that life can grow on Mars, but also that life there once existed. Ram (Ray Panthaki) is, get this, a pilot, astronaut, and surgeon, who is a supportive ally of Emma, and her second in command, representing the country of India. Finally, we have Lu (Vivian Wu), a chemist from China, who, per the international agreement, will be the first person to take the first step on Mars. The danger is that this could be a one-way trip, and when Lu comments to a reporter’s question about the survival rate she says, “50/50.”

Away season 1 was created by Chicago playwright Andrew Hinderaker (Pure Genius) and his show is the type that needs some time to settle into its own rhythm. The pilot uses a flashback sequence that is more akin to the classic adventure drama, Lost. They use these sequences to set up character motivations and the great sacrifices each made to go on this mission into the dark void of space. Instead of this device setting up constant surprising reveals for shock value, Away is more interested in showing us the sacrifices each team member has made in their lives at great personal cost to make human history. The strongest ones come from Kwesi and Lu, but they become less relevant as the show comes to its freshman conclusion; that is compensated by the stakes becoming higher with the last handful of episodes. They, mostly, however, hit the right notes at the gravity of the crew’s situations and show some depth and layers that get deeper with every revealing episode. One caveat is when they have Swank in flashback scenes. She is always in bangs, which seems to be the go-to move of any show using the female characters in these situations.

Hilary Swank has a standard role that grows more substantial by the end of the season when the show smartly moves into a direction of having her imagining Matt in the room with her instead of reading emails aloud or just hearing his voice as she reads them. This gives the scenes some added weight and gives both Swank and Charles enough to play with the themes of love being transcendent. Ivanir’s Misha is easily the most colorful and entertaining on the show, while others seem to have been written as a way to resolve conflicts or to state the obvious—while Kwesi’s faith is moving, his scenes seem to have a singular purpose of resolving a conflict between his crew members. Bateman’s Alexis is in her formative years but is going through feelings of being abandoned by her mother, and worried about her father’s medical condition, which is also genetic — she is the most overwhelmed teenager in America right now.

While the comparison to Lost is on point, that particular show moved at the network television pace of a grand reveal and to hit the viewer with a major plot point right before commercial breaks to keep the viewer coming back. In Away, and in a majority of streaming shows, these reveals are lower key than anything exciting, can be poignant, and under the radar in its reveals. The season’s storylines can also be uneven and have a hard time working well together. As said before, the flashbacks become less effective by the end of the season, while storylines on the ship seem to pop up like in a law show to solve a case, and only start to become relevant to multiple episodes by the year’s end. Personal relationships and potential romances develop in the ship and back home, but really seem to be created out of random circumstance or odds of meeting someone else are severely limited. Away’s strongest written and consistent characters are Josh Charles’s Matt and Tabetha Bateman’s Alexis, and it’s really one of Charles’s best performances, while the team on Atlas does get stronger by the season’s end.

Away season 1 is a strong effort that had a shaky liftoff, but the storyline offers a solid landing. What I do appreciate is the fact that the season ended in a way without a cliffhanger, which is asking Hollywood a lot these days. The season offers strong themes of love, family, friendship, and faith, that could have used a bit more excitement in its scenes, but offers a much more cerebral take on a space adventure series that the usual norm. The season’s strongest turns are the last two (“Spektr” and “Home”) that bring a slightly uneven season’s storyline together, with it being no coincidence lead by Swank’s best efforts. The journey is just engaging enough to be worth your time.

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