You don’t cast a two-time Oscar winner and put her in a mid-budget TV show with not much to do.
If you have Hilary Swank at the top of the call sheet in a space drama about the first manned mission to Mars, you better bring it.
Away kind of brings it. Well, it occasionally brings it.
The Netflix series isn’t a mid-budget show, but it is a middling story full of generic story beats and well-trodden clichés about family, sacrifice and duty.
It may be on a streaming platform with the money required to mount many anti-gravity scenes, but its soul is broadcast TV. What we mean by that is there is an earnest American sentimentality to it, a tone you find in This Is Us or The Good Doctor.
Away was created by Andrew Hinderaker, a writer who has worked on Pure Genius and Penny Dreadful, but among its executive producers are two old hands in the US network TV game, Jason Katims and Ed Zwick.
Between, they have produced shows including Friday Night Lights, Relativity, thirtysomething, Once and Again, Nashville and Parenthood. Those dramas have a particular vibe about America – a sincere belief in family, community and service – and you’ll find it in abundance in the one-dimensional Away.
Away’s not going to be everyone’s bag, and it’s certainly not fresh or complex, but for some TV audiences, that’s going to be exactly the kind of simple, unchallenging TV they’re looking for – one episode easily rolls into the next.
Swank plays Emma Green, the commander of a five-person crew aiming to land on Mars. It’s a NASA mission but with international co-operation – her team include the Ghanaian-British Kwesi (Ato Essandoh), Russian Misha (Mark Ivanir), Indian Ram (Ray Panthaki) and Chinese Lu (Vivian Wu).
There is the usual tension over power and command within the team – rather uninspiringly, the questioning of Emma’s authority comes from Misha and Lu. This othering of the eastern nations dissipates as the episodes go on, but it’s lazy storytelling to so readily go there at the start.
It’s only as Away hits the third episode does it start to hint at what it could be – this is an episode devoted to Lu and her secret – which is not some espionage double-dealing as it was hinted, but a significant, forbidden relationship.
It’s a tender, emotionally effective episode, but on the flip side, it also highlights Away’s flaws in that it doesn’t aim for that kind of more nuanced storytelling more frequently. An episode which explores Kewsi’s faith and background is another highlight.
While Away has these moments of brightness up in the coldness of space, the action on Earth is less appealing.
Emma leaves behind her NASA engineer husband Matt (Charles) and teenage daughter Alexis (Talitha Eliana Bateman) and that three-year separation is supposed to be the series’ emotional anchor.
But there’s nothing fresh about it, and it even uses melodramatic hooks – Matt’s sick, Alexis becomes interested in a boy – to make you care despite the fact that the same scenario has been rehashed so many times before.
Away is a real mixed bag and whether the pluses of the great production values and the terrific performances, in particular from Swank, Essandoh and Yu, outweigh the generic and guileless nature of its emotional beats will depend on your propensity for this type of saintly, surfacey American storytelling.
Away premieres on Netflix on Friday, September 4 at 5pm AEST
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