'Away' Is Bad at Sci-Fi but Pretty Good at Family Drama

Starring Hilary Swank, Josh Charles, Talitha Bateman, Vivian Wu, Mark Ivanir, Ato Essandoh, Ray Panthaki
'Away' Is Bad at Sci-Fi but Pretty Good at Family Drama
Away suffers from a case of false advertising. Ostensibly, it's a show about the first-ever manned mission to Mars, but the 10-episode series largely sidesteps everything that makes sci-fi great — big existential questions, wide-eyed wonder — in favour of soapy, sentimental family drama.

Whether or not that's a good thing will depend entirely on the viewer, since, as family drama goes, Away mostly does the trick. It follows Emma Green (Hilary Swank), an American astronaut who leaves her husband, NASA colleague Matt Logan (Josh Charles), and teenage daughter Alexis (Talitha Bateman), for three years while she leads an international mission to Mars. She's conflicted about whether she should be separated from her family for so long, particularly when Matt's underlying medical issues suddenly become more serious.

So where other depictions of space travel focus on the scientific nitty-gritty (The Martian) or cosmic melancholy (Interstellar) or the desperate fight for survival (Gravity), Away is largely preoccupied with Emma's turmoil at being separated from her loved ones. There are endless voicemails from space, and the earthbound Matt and Alexis get nearly as much screen time as Emma. Audiences may wonder if Emma does any actual work up there, or if she's just sitting around texting her daughter the whole time.

Everything about Away is pure family melodrama, from the often-syrupy score to the slow-paced dialogue to Alexis's intensely chaste romance with an older guy at school. At one point, Alexis rebels against her parents by sneaking out in the middle of night to attend midnight mass, like a true badass. The show's sexless morality and frequent religious overtones give the sense that this is a bit like a Nicholas Sparks story set in space. Imagine if, instead of "One small step for man," Neil Armstrong landed on the moon and wouldn't stop talking about how much he loved his wife — that should give you a general idea of what this feels like.

Like all things on this show, Emma's crewmates are entertaining but a little bland. Lu (Vivian Wu) is a Chinese astronaut with a stoic demeanour but a tender heart; arrogant Russian cosmonaut Misha (Mark Ivanir) has a prickly disposition but — you guessed it — also a tender heart; British/Ghanaian botanist Kwesi (Ato Essandoh) balances his love of science with his strong Jewish faith; Indian second-in-command Ram (Ray Panthaki) gets the least character development, acting mostly as a voice of reason for when things getting heated among the crew.

These secondary characters each get their own backstories, showing their lives before the mission — but mostly they serve as the foil to Emma's family, as the commander is torn between her guilt over leaving her family and her duties as leader of a dangerous expedition.

It's a dynamic that occasionally reinforces lazy stereotypes. The way Emma's responsibilities as a wife and mother interfere with her job performance validates the same sexist stereotypes that her character actively fights against, while the secondary characters sometimes come across as shallow caricatures of their countries of origin. Case in point: Misha's arrogant brashness is distinctly Putinesque.

And yet, for all of Away's flaws, It's unfailingly very watchable. Despite its fairly mild crises and an absence of cliffhangers, it's very easy to plow through the 10 episodes. It's the kind of show that hooks you with its comfortable predictability and satisfying resolutions, rather than with a deeper exploration of the existential significance of travelling through deep space. For Netflix, this Mars mission is ultimately a successful one. (Netflix)