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Netflix's Away is a crowd pleaser -- it's blockbuster TV during a time when blockbuster movies aren't in theaters

  • Executive producer Jason Katims perfected the art of feel-good TV with Friday Night Lights and Parenthood. On Away, inspired by a 2014 Esquire story on astronaut Scott Kelly, Katims, creator Andrew Hinderaker and showrunner Jessica Goldberg are able to make the little moments shine to create big moments. "While watching Away, Netflix’s sweeping series about the first mission to Mars, I thought about The West Wing a lot," says Amy Amatangelo. "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)...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."


    • Hilary Swank's character is the only downside on an otherwise stellar show: "Here’s the biggest problem with an otherwise enjoyable series: Each crew member is more interesting, with more compelling backstory, than Emma, the show’s focal point," says Stephen Robinson. "It rarely seems like she wants to be on this mission, let alone lead it, which Lu calls her out on in a tense moment. Emma almost relinquishes command before the mission’s even started, and when her supervisor Darlene (Gabrielle Rose) warns her how it would look if the first woman commander quit for personal reasons, she dismisses the concern as 'feminist bullsh*t.' That contrasts starkly with Lu and even Misha, who never forget the duty they have to the people they represent. Emma’s constant second thoughts don’t feel realistic for a veteran astronaut. This can’t be the first time she’s spent an extended period away from her family—such feelings would be more understandable from a rookie like Kwesi."
    • Away is well-done sap: "It’s hard not to be sentimental about space exploration," says Tim Grierson. "Rousing films like Apollo 13, The Martian or Apollo 11 — whether based on actual events or completely made up — speak to the extraordinary ordeal that traveling the cosmos entails, requiring mental, physical and emotional toughness, not to mention smarts and courage. America’s journey to the moon in the 1960s was, in large part, an attempt to boost our national spirits — if we can achieve that, what can’t we do? — and even intellectually chilly movies such as 2001 and Ad Astra are still awestruck by the mammoth, unknowable depths of the cosmos. Going into space, leaving the safety of Earth behind, is both incredibly daunting and undeniably stirring, pushing the limits of what human beings are capable of. No wonder the thought of it makes people a little mawkish. If that last paragraph made you roll your eyes at any point, you are advised to avoid Away, a decidedly corny drama in which Hilary Swank plays a mom and wife who also happens to be the American commander of the first manned mission to Mars....Away is more about hankies than blasters, and it couldn’t be sappier — both in its optimistic depiction of the human spirit and in its portrayal of the characters’ frequent ups and downs. This show is full of feels, and although it can often be a bit much, I found myself slowly succumbing to — even respecting — its concentrated blasts of tear-jerking earnestness. But, to be fair, I get sentimental about space exploration."
    • Jason Katims' tear-jerking that he used on Friday Night Lights and Parenthood fails on Away: "Away is more emotional drama than sci-fi adventure, and that’s no surprise: Katims is known for tearjerkers," says Judy Berman. "In the past, distinctive characters have helped his projects avoid the mawkish, emotionally manipulative territory of This Is Us and its ilk. Sadly, this time, despite strong acting, convincing production design and propulsive storytelling, the weepy stuff often feels contrived...It’s a shame, because an astronaut show that blended old-school heroism and new-school darkness with Katims’ signature poignancy could’ve brought balance to a genre born out of space-age optimism but embittered by the cataclysms of the 21st century. Whether they’re political epics or futuristic farces, the best of the new space series understand that when earthlings blast off into the wild blue yonder, we drag our dysfunction along with us. Beyond capturing the glory and terror of going where no one has gone before, they suggest that humans might pose a greater threat to the universe than it does to us."
    • Away would be better off spending less time at home while toning down its saccharine side: "There is an unexpectedly old-fashioned feel to Away (Netflix), the glossy and ambitious new space drama led by two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank," says Rebecca Nicholson. "At times, it resembles a blockbuster film from the 90s, at others, a big, mainstream television show from the 00s, but somehow, it has lost the essence of modernity that you might expect from a series set in the near future, made today. Swank is Emma Green, the commander of a five-strong international team of astronauts and scientists embarking on a three-year mission to become the first humans to set foot on Mars. Things go wrong, a lot. Happily, for anyone made nauseous by the wobbly antics of George Clooney and Sandra Bullock in Gravity, Away is more concerned with how people deal with catastrophe than it is with catastrophe itself. This makes it an intriguing prospect, because it promises not to take the obvious path. This is its strength and its main flaw. For a story with such a dramatic premise, it resists bombast. The action sequences are enough to get the heart pounding, but are rarely overcooked. Instead, it spends around half of its time on Earth, exploring the emotional impact of such a mission on the family, friends and support crew on terra firma, and there is a soaring soundtrack, as everyone learns something new about themselves."
    • Trying to appeal to a mass audience hinders Away: "It’s not nerve-wracking enough to alienate the squeamish; it’s not taking any sort of political stance that could put off either side; it’s not even that interested in the significance or value of space exploration, let alone the big ideas and existential dread often invited by trips into the unknown. It’s a straightforward family drama where the only question is if this family can stay connected during their three years apart," says Ben Travers. "(The other astronauts are given similarly simplistic family strife, though Vivian Wu’s chemist manages to earn a few tears in the third episode.) Away is too long to recommend, but by prioritizing people, the series fitfully finds relevance in examining how distance can affect relationships; how being kept separate from your loved one by your responsibility to the greater good can be detrimental to your personal well-being as well as your pursuits."
    • Away awkwardly marries the grandeur of space exploration to the banality of parenting challenges: "It’s a difficult premise to pull off, one that asks viewers to care about, say, Alexis’ frankly enviable boy troubles when, 30 million miles away, life-and-death problems tirelessly plague Emma’s hopefully history-making, Mars-bound crew. But the result, most likely, is that you won’t," says Inkoo Kang. "...Away seems to be aimed at masochists (or sadists) who want to see a woman accomplish the impossible, but also never not feel guilty about sometimes being away from her family. The stakes are ratcheted up even higher for Emma when a medical catastrophe befalls her husband Matt (Josh Charles in the kind of eternally supportive heartthrob role he could ace in his sleep). The writers intend, I think, to illustrate that a woman like Emma who doesn’t shy away from her emotions and sense of familial obligation can also be the kind of bold leader who finally takes humankind to Mars. But her domestic preoccupations are so ever-present (and dull) that it becomes too easy to side with her detractors among the crew."
    • It’s too bad Away lays everything on so thick, resulting in a work of television that feels far too routine: "Ever wondered what it would truly feel like to be on the first trip to Mars? Turns out, it feels a little like a zero-gravity season of E.R., or some other passably decent network drama in which an ensemble of highly trained experts must overcome their personal issues and simmering conflicts to get through another day of urgent crises, of which Away offers plenty, from faulty machinery to physical and mental deterioration," says Hank Stuever. He adds: "Rather than lend shape and context to the character, Emma’s constant need to check in with Matt and Alexis — freaking out when a text goes unanswered for a day — begins to feel like a sexist form of penance for her 'choice' to leave them. Can we not simply revel in the fact that a woman is leading a mission to Mars and let her daughter fail calculus if need be? Can we not let this crew slip some surly bonds without the guilt? While watching Swank strain to give a meaningful performance, it seems a shame that so much of Away ’s time dwells on keeping Emma at this needlessly fragile brink. And yet, it is this fraught combination of personality, psychology and physicality that remains Away’s strongest thematic anchor, echoing the 2014 Esquire article that inspired the series. Who do we become in space?"
    • Away fails to live up to its storyline: "Swank, always a performer of startling grit, has a strong idea of who Emma is; it’s just that Emma’s dutifulness and singleminded obsession need a series willing to match her audaciousness," says Daniel D'Addario. "Even though it’s been a subject plumbed in fiction many times before, the idea of leaving one’s family for years on a possibly doomed mission is mind-boggling. It demands more of the writing and direction than Away gives, with scenes on the ship giving way to gauzy and predictable flashbacks and with life on earth trending in the direction of after-school special. Emma’s husband’s struggle — he, almost immediately after her departure, has a sudden medical emergency — and her daughter’s ongoing rebellion are soapy without pleasurable excess; they’re manufactured conflict from a lesser show than Away is capable of being. And Emma’s perpetual contact, real and imagined, with family is a storytelling aid the show leans on too easily, dodging the isolating repercussions of what it really means to be, well, away."
    • Away sees itself as Prestige TV when it would've been better off a corny space soap: "Away has all the makings of an enjoyably corny space soap," says Kristen Baldwin. "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."
    • Swank's acting helps Away overcome some of its predictability: "The two-time Academy Award winner brings authenticity to her character, who is constantly hiding her vulnerable side beneath a tough forefront. She feels believable. And though her character is not the most interesting astronaut on the mission, it's hard to imagine Away without Swank," says Brooke Bajgrowicz. "But she is not the only standout. The members of Emma's space crew are also well-acted. There's Ram (Ray Panthaki), an Indian Air Force pilot who deals with loneliness; Lu (Vivian Wu), a Chinese chemist who wants to honor her family and country but struggles with a personal secret; Misha (Mark Ivanir), a Russian engineer who made huge sacrifices to get to space; and Kwesi (Ato Essandoh), a faith-filled biologist anxious about his first flight. Their storylines and personalities complement one another in a way that keeps the tension sizzling. However, it's impossible to talk about these characters and their worlds without also thinking about how tropey they are. Because while Away is a moderately entertaining series, it's also one you'll feel like you've seen before."
    • What is CCM, the disease sidelining Josh Charles' character?
    • How real-life astronaut Scott Kelly's disastrous attempt to pee inspired Away
    • Showrunner Jessica Goldberg says Away has the most honest portrayal of a working mom she's ever seen: "It’s sort of the working mother to the nth degree, but you know what? It captured the way you can love your child and your work, the pull between those two things," she says, adding: “I just felt like wow, it’s so rare to see women that are so smart and so love their work and also are so dedicated to their family, and that really moved me."
    • Away creator Andrew Hinderaker did copious amounts of research, interviewing astronauts and their families: He wanted to capture the feeling of what it all must be like, he discovered a few common threads which he called "paradigm-shifting." "They are one of the very small handful of people who get to look back at our planet and understand that, for example, national borders don't exist as they exist on maps and globes, that they are a construct made up of lines that people drew," says Hinderaker.
    • Goldberg says Swank was one of the first people considered to lead Away: "For me, it was just so important that you believe—whoever we cast—that you believe they really could go to space," says Goldberg of Swank, who revealed to producers she always dreamed of becoming an astronaut. “I always feel like there’s that perfect person for you,” says Goldberg. “She came in the door and it was something that she had dreamt of, too.”
    • Hilary Swank says Away takes place amid a cultural shift: "It's equality, and we're all there on set to do whatever our dream is no matter what gender, no matter what creed, no matter what race, and it's an exciting time, and yet we still have these ingrained, old patterns of thinking," she says.

    TOPICS: Away, Netflix, Andrew Hinderaker, Hilary Swank, Jason Katims, Jessica Goldberg