Away Review: Hilary Swank Leads an Admirable, Frustrating Sci-Fi Drama

In a fall television season with far less original content than usual due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the backlog of new shows on streaming services might prove to be a blessing in disguise. One of the most highly anticipated new entries set to join that fray is Away, a Hilary Swank-led Netflix series that hits the streaming platform early next month. With an epic, sci-fi-infused scale, and a roster of executive producers that includes Friday Night Lights' Jason Katims and The Batman's Matt Reeves, there's a lot setting up Away to be a success -- and it is, to an extent. The series' 10-episode first season ricochets from being an emotional and powerful set of character studies to being a hollow and borderline-frustrating melodrama, sometimes in the span of a single scene. It's a show that largely succeeds in what it sets out to do, but also manages to be a little too saccharine (and a little too unintentionally timely) for its own good.

Away follows the diverse international crew on the Atlas, a NASA vehicle that hopes to make the first successful mission to Mars. The group is led by Emma Green (Swank), a tenacious American astronaut who must balance her lifelong dream of going to Mars with her guilt about leaving behind her husband, fellow NASA worker Matt Logan (Josh Charles), and their teenage daughter Lex (Talitha Bateman). As the crew continues their trip into the great unknown of Mars, Emma and her fellow astronauts must reconcile their history-making journey with the drama that they left behind on Earth.

To an extent, it almost feels weird referring to Away as a sci-fi show, as the elements of the team's trek to Mars almost take a backseat to what's going on with the ensemble of characters. At times, this is almost literally the case, as the scenes on board the Atlas are so well-executed on a technical level that they often make you forget that the actors aren't really interacting on a moving spacecraft. This does lead to some unintentionally-amusing moments, where characters make a dramatic entrance or exit from a scene by floating in zero gravity. That isn't to say that there aren't plot threads and moments surrounding the difficult scientific logistics of the Atlas' mission, but they're largely outweighed by interpersonal drama.

That interpersonal drama might simultaneously be Away's biggest blessing and curse, as the series' juggling of plotlines ranges from engrossing to forgettable. There are some standout arcs throughout the season, including an incredibly endearing LGBTQ+ storyline and some poignant explorations of the Atlas crew's backstories, but they're outweighed by contrived moments and sources of conflict. Even when we do learn more about a certain character's past or see them struggle against some impossible odd, it rarely helps them become a fully three-dimensional character, as they might proceed to act wildly different in their next scene to move the overall plot forward. This is especially the case for Matt and Lex, whose journey of trying to be a familial unit while Emma is in space is simultaneously heartwarming and exhausting to watch. On a larger scale, there's a sense that almost all of Away's plotlines are designed to be resolved over the course of multiple additional seasons, which, given Netflix's recent rash of "gone too soon" cancellations, could not bode well unless the show manages to be a massive success for the streamer.

There's also one element of Away that, while entirely accidental, is almost impossible to separate from the experience of viewing -- its parallels to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. So much of Season One focuses on the tragedy of the Atlas crew being physically separated from their loved ones, and the time that they will have missed out on once they theoretically reunite with them on Earth. Compared to Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, which presents that fact of deep space travel as a sort of devastating gut-punch, Away tries to handle it in a more casual, but emotional manner -- and creates something slowly heartbreaking in the process. Every time a crew member relays personal updates or heartfelt messages to their families over video chat, it's hard not to think about the families who are indefinitely physically separated by distance during the COVID-19 pandemic, or who feel powerless as their loved ones are in the hospital. The series also, to an extent, explores the idea of forming a found family with those physically around you, something that a lot of people have had to stumble into since quarantines and shelter-in-place orders began earlier this year. Again, none of this was obviously intentional on Away's behalf, but it causes the show to take a whole other meaning, one that makes it slightly harder to passively enjoy as a viewer.

By and large, the ensemble cast of Away does make the show a worthwhile viewing experience, even when the material that they're working with is narratively unremarkable. Swank's take on Emma feels like a bit of an enigma -- she's strong-willed and relatable, and she could be a really fascinating character if her individual arc didn't essentially boil down to a dichotomy of being a good astronaut vs. being a "good" mom. As essentially the co-lead of the show (and the main focus of its events on Earth), Charles's Matt does bring gravitas and a sense of charm, but he comes off as a little too stoic during some of the series' more emotional moments. The other crew members of the Atlas will undoubtedly grow on viewers as the season goes along, with Vivian Wu's Lu and Ato Essandoh's Kwesi being standouts in particular.

Away is a weird beast of a show -- it's well-executed and well-acted on nearly every level, and its various plotlines and relationships will be catnip those who already love prime-time soap operas. Despite using its science-fiction scenario as more of a backdrop than an actual mission statement, the show does effectively lean into one of the tenets of the genre -- humanity's sense of ambition and optimism. That isn't to say that Away is the most compelling science-fiction show you could stream this fall, as it's almost the opposite of escapist television in our current situation. But if you're looking for some sort of emotional catharsis -- one that won't extend far beyond finishing an episode -- then Away might be for you.

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Rating: 3 out of 5

The first season of Away will debut on Netflix on September 4th.