In promoting his new Netflix space drama Away, producer Jason Katims has been doing his darnedest to tie his show into the COVID-19 pandemic. Away, as you may have heard, stars Hilary Swank as an astronaut who leaves her family for three years to travel to Mars. This being a drama, drama ensues — both on Earth and on board the spacecraft.
Katims told Deadline that as the pandemic set in, his show started to “resonate in a way that we had never imagined.” You see, “the idea of not being able to be with people who are the most important to you, the idea of making the most important life decisions but not being able to be with your husband or wife or child when doing it,” is like people being separated by a pandemic. Oh also, the show is about “the human spirit, and more specifically, when it’s tested what it’s capable of. Given the time we’re in, I’m really proud to be able to put this show out in the world right now.”
Nice try, Mr. Friday Night Lights, but Away is literally and figuratively a million miles away from real life. And that’s okay! We don’t need every TV show to have a news hook. In fact, it’s better that this one doesn’t. Space has always been entertainment’s great escape. Do we love Star Trek: The Next Generation because it was such a spot-on allegory about the Eighties? No, iwe love it because it had a superior cast and some damn good stories.
Anyway, this one pretty much had me at Hilary Swank. (By the way, if you actually are looking for socially relevant drama, switch to HBO Max and watch her in the greatest woman-suffrage film ever made, Iron Jawed Angels.) Swank plays Emma, the team leader of a multinational expedition blasting off to the red planet.
She’s got a challenging task ahead — I’m referring to the show, not the space mission. Emma has to believably manage family crises via interplanetary FaceTime calls while at the same time dealing with a weirdly dysfunctional crew and once-per-episode crises that threaten to blow them all to bits. Definitely a job for a double Oscar winner, and Swank is up to the task.
Josh Charles plays her faithful hubby Matt, a top NASA engineer who is virtually by her side, whether trading intimacies or helping her fix a busted solar panel while she’s tethered to the outside of her ship. The couple have a teenage daughter, Alexis, played by Talitha Bateman, who’s understandably ripped to shreds by the idea of being on her own with Dad for three years.
In a quiet scene before Emma becomes Rocket Mom, she gives Alexis a bracelet with three medallions on it: Earth, the Moon, Mars. When clasped around her wrist, the medallions for Earth and Mars are almost touching, she explains. “So just remember, the further away I get, I’m actually getting closer to being back with you.” Yikes. I told you this was a tough assignment — but Swank delivers the line beautifully.
Katims, who also was behind the mushy Parenthood, is the best-known producer of Away, but the show was actually created by Andrew Hinderaker from an Esquire article written in 2014 by Chris Jones about Scott Kelly, the astronaut who spent one year in space. Yes, I just named four men and the show stars Hilary Swank. Not to worry — the showrunner is Jessica Goldberg (The Path) and half of Away’s first ten episodes are written by women.
Back to Katims – he does have a point. It’s odd to say this, given how Away strives for a realistic look and feel, but this really isn’t a show about space. If you want to watch a captivating counter-factual NASA series, try Apple TV+’s For All Mankind. I don’t agree that Away is about making do in a pandemic. But I do think it’s about the human tendency that will endure long after this horrible year is over — the desire to aspire, whatever the human cost might be.
Everyone on board the ship heading to Mars, and most of the principals watching from Houston, have had to weigh their Texas-sized ambitions against the possibility that chasing their dreams will ruin their relationships with those they love. Some choose career over loved ones. Some choose the opposite. Emma and Matt are trying to have both, which is why they are at the center of the show, being played by the most appealing actors in the cast.
The trade-offs everyone faces will be presented through flashbacks, some of which go back years, in sepia-stained, Nineties-haircut, This Is Us fashion. Misha, the Russian astronaut played by Mark Ivanir, is an arrogant, seen-it-all prick who immediately tries to undermine Emma. So you know he has issues.
Less certain is what’s up with Kwesi, played by veteran character actor Ato Essandoh. He’s the African astronaut, the show’s lone Black star, an extremely green rookie on his first space mission and … Jewish? Prays in Hebrew during life-and-death moments? What is the takeaway about Black lives here? Jason Katims, discuss.
The crew is rounded out with Lu from China (Vivian Wu) and Ram from India (Ray Panthaki). These five don’t really get along, but here’s the thing about space: They’ll have to learn to work together. That’s especially true given the Truman Show setup they’ve got, where anyone in the world can watch them 24/7 on multiple high-definition feeds and Earth is just a video call away.
So the technology is a little oversold. As I said, space is more of a backdrop for Away’s actual drama, which is about smart, ambitious people getting in each other’s way, and their own, and whether keeping your feet on the ground might not be the better decision.
Away drops on Netflix Friday September 4th.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.