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"How many times have we almost died on this mission?" So says one astronaut to another astronaut in the season finale of Away, an expensive-looking melodrama about astronauts who almost die in every episode. The series, starring Hilary Swank as the commander of an international space mission to Mars, is a self-important patchwork of space clichés and boilerplate family conflict that never manages to make it into orbit.
Away — premiering Sept. 4 on Netflix — begins on the moon, where Emma Green (Swank) and the crew of the Atlas is preparing to launch the world’s inaugural trip to Mars. The year is… actually, it's never made clear when Away takes place. Everything looks like the present day, but it's a present day where space travel to Mars is possible, and interplanetary cell service is suspiciously flawless. ("I’m calling from the moon!" announces Emma during one of her many, many cell-phone chats with folks on Earth.)
The astronauts on the Atlas are a box-ticking collection of types: There’s the skeptic, Misha (Mark Ivanir); the seemingly emotionless scientist, Lu (Vivian Wu); the rookie, Kwesi (Ato Essandoh); and the sensitive guy, Ram (Ray Panthaki). But they all have one thing in common: They’re starting to wonder if Commander Green is up to the task, thanks to a freak accident early in the mission. I don't need to tell you, do I, that Emma will have to go about winning her team over one by one?
Back home, Emma’s husband, Matt (Josh Charles), is running point at NASA mission control and providing emotional support to their teenage daughter, Alexis (Talitha Bateman), who is not super psyched about mom’s three-year space odyssey. So just imagine Lexi’s chagrin when dad suffers a sudden health crisis in episode 1, and yet still insists — from his hospital bed no less! — that Emma continue her trek into the galaxy’s unforgiving void.
From there, Away settles into its narrative pattern. Something goes wrong on the Atlas, leaving the crew in grave danger. We learn more about each of the astronauts through character-expanding flashbacks to their lives before space: Lu forms a deep bond with a colleague named Mei (Nadia Hatta); a young orphan Kwesi adjusts to life with his adoptive Jewish parents; Ram suffers a painful family loss; and so on. Matt races to solve Emma’s latest space crisis from afar, while also working on his own recovery and attempting to parent Lexi, who’s gripped with the most justifiable case of teen angst since Sam’s parents forgot her birthday in Sixteen Candles. “What we’re putting her through is too much,” frets Emma. Correct, Commander Green.
Away has all the makings of an enjoyably corny space soap. People give rousing, overwrought speeches ("Hope has never been my North Star… until I met you") and muddle through clumsy love triangles, both on Earth and in the glittery cosmos. Unfortunately, the series — created by Andrew Hinderaker and exec produced by Parenthood’s Jason Katims, among others — sees itself as a Serious Prestige Drama, Netflix’s answer to Apollo 13, perhaps. Swank plays every scene with an unwavering grimness, whether Emma is worrying about Lexi’s new boyfriend (Adam Irigoyen) or facing down the prospect of a lonely space death yet again. Matt spends most of his time furrowing his brow in fatherly or husbandly concern, and it’s a testament to Charles’ stalwart appeal that he’s still able to make the character somewhat likable. The only bright spots on Away’s bleak emotional palette come from Ivanir, who balances Misha’s gruff cynicism with regular hits of gallows humor.
Risky spacewalks, tense silence giving way to spontaneous applause at ground control, even that old gravitational chestnut known as the “slingshot” maneuver — Away’s got 'em all. As the Atlas drifts ever farther from the moon’s orbit, Emma lies on the bed in her pod, listening to Debussy’s "Clair de Lune" with Matt, who's calling from the hospital. “I know it’s overplayed,” he murmurs, “but I don’t care.” Well, sir, does Netflix have an astronaut drama for you. Grade: C