SANTA MONICA, California—The long opening sequence of the new Hulu series The First builds toward a devastating disaster. As viewers, we quickly realize that this season will not be about the first manned mission literally making it to Mars, but rather what it takes to come back from tragedy and achieve the impossible.
Beau Willimon, the 40-year-old former playwright and creator of The First, thinks sending his astronauts to Mars in episode one would have been too easy. “A safer way to go would have been to throw them up in space right away,” he says. “But I also felt it was important to see the stakes, to see tragedy right from the start, to remind the audience that people are putting their lives on the line.”
Willimon and his producing partner Jordan Tappis are seated around a small table in a large conference room at Hulu’s headquarters in Santa Monica. They’ve just returned from screening the premiere at Kennedy Space Center and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. While several NASA consultants helped to ensure the technical elements of the show were on point, Willimon says he was gratified to hear from those audiences about how much they “connected with the human story” as well.
“They felt like their lives and the sacrifices they make and the difficulties of what it means to be a human trying to do this thing were being dramatized for the first time in an accurate way,” he explains.
Among the audience members at the Kennedy Space Center was one woman who worked on the Space Shuttle Columbia mission, which broke up upon reentry to the Earth’s atmosphere in 2003, killing all seven astronauts on board. She found the first episode “really tough to watch because it brought back all of those memories.” But at the same time, she thanked the creators for doing it in a “responsible way” that “felt true” to her. “That was a really big moment for us,” Willimon says.
When a similar disaster strikes in the first episode, the families watching below are silent for several seconds before realizing what has happened and erupting into grief. The scene is based on footage of the families in the grandstands when the Challenger exploded after takeoff in 1986. “For two or three minutes it’s just stillness and silence,” Willimon says of the video. “People are in such shock that there’s not even really a visible reaction. And then suddenly there’s a lot of activity to try to get those people out of there.”
Willimon first started thinking about the idea for The First while he was still serving as the showrunner for House of Cards, the Netflix series he created and ran for its first four seasons. He had already left that show when the revelations about star Kevin Spacey’s alleged history of sexual misconduct came to light.
As House of Cards prepares to return without Spacey and with Robin Wright taking the lead as president, Willimon is extremely hesitant to talk about everything that happened both during and after his time there. “I wish everyone involved in it the best, and I devoted five years of my life to that show,” he says, “but this project has consumed me for the past few years, so that’s really my focus right now.”
When news broke about the allegations against Spacey, Willimon issued a statement saying he “neither witnessed nor was aware of any inappropriate behavior on set or off” during his time working with the actor—an assertion disputed by unnamed members of his crew.
“I can only concentrate on the work that’s in front of me,” he says when I ask about his time working on that set and the show’s tainted legacy. “I don’t even go back and watch House of Cards, because the work is done.” He adds, “You have no control over what the world will think of you or your work.”
With The First, Willimon wanted to tell a story about people “pushing themselves to the limits.” But as he continued to think about where that fascination was rooted, he kept returning to his father’s service on nuclear submarines.
“One of my earliest memories, when he was stationed at Pearl Harbor, is he took me out to a sub,” he says. “For a four-year-old to see periscopes and communications consoles and really what is essentially a spaceship, really just blew my mind.”
Willimon’s father would be on the submarine for months at a time, not unlike the way Sean Penn’s character, Captain Tom Haggarty, must potentially leave his troubled daughter Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron) behind for years if he agrees to make the mission to Mars. “When you set out to write something, you don’t psychoanalyze yourself first,” Willimon says, explaining it was “only in retrospect” that he realized the parallel with his own childhood.
The character of Tom Haggarty wasn’t written with any particular actor in mind and when the production initially approached Penn, he was hesitant. “I had very little hope that he would actually say yes, because he had never done television before,” Willimon says. “But there’s only one way to know, which is to try.”
“Beau’s being a little humble,” Tappis chimes in. “The first bit of information that we got back was that he’s not available. Then he read the script. The script really was the draw for him.”
Penn, unsurprisingly, brings an emotional urgency to his character that is hard to imagine many other actors matching. And despite his reputation as an incredibly precise writer, Willimon even let Penn improvise on occasion if it meant creating a more authentic moment on screen.
The attention to detail on The First is striking, especially given that the show is set in the year 2031, distant enough in the future that everything is different—but not too different. The team brought on futurists as consultants to “create a prediction of what 2031 might look like,” Tappis says. They had to ask themselves, “What does the future look like to us?” Or, alternatively, “What would Steve Jobs do?”
In this version of the near future, cars don’t fly, but they do drive themselves. Nearly everything seems to be voice-activated and you can check into a hotel in seconds without ever interacting with another human. The most elegant piece of technology in The First is the stylish augmented reality glasses everyone carries and can use to see anything in front of them at any moment.
“We wanted a subtle and light touch so that they didn’t overwhelm the story,” Willimon says of their approach. “It should feel totally integrated into one’s life as opposed to ‘Hey ma, look what I can do.’”
Unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, another Hulu series set in the not-too-distant future, The First offers a far less dystopian view of what America will look like past this present moment. There’s even a female president played by Oscar nominee Jeannie Berlin. “I would vote for Jeannie Berlin in a heartbeat,” Willimon says with a laugh.
There also doesn’t seem to be a Space Force, as President Trump has requested, in this version of the future. Willimon says he’s “less interested” in the Space Force than he is in increased funding for NASA. “There’s much more to be gained from science and exploration than from the militarization” of space, he says. But on the other hand, he adds, “Anything that’s getting people more interested in space, on the surface, is a good thing.”
“I think the people who set out to do this have an ingrained optimism,” Willimon says of space explorers. “I mean, they’re trying to do something really hard where the deck is stacked against you. So you have to wake up every morning inspired and determined.”
He believes the “vast majority of people lean towards” being good people as opposed to bad. “But they’re all capable of making mistakes, of hurting each other, of not being able to perfectly navigate all of the things that life throws at you. We want to see ordinary, messy people who are trying to do something pretty optimistic.”
While Willimon says he wasn’t trying to “write in a reactionary way” to the rest of the TV landscape, he does acknowledge that these generally good-hearted characters are about as far away as he could get from the Machiavellian political animals he created on House of Cards with Frank and Claire Underwood.
“Of course, there are a lot of stories about anti-heroes, which are focused on the darker aspects of humanity,” he says. “I certainly contributed to that in the past, and I was interested in exploring a different side of the human condition.” Given our current political moment, he sees that decision as “somewhat radical, because there’s a lot of darkness out there.”
One major critique of The First is that it is a show about space travel without much space travel. Assuming a second season happens, Willimon confirms there will be “a ton” of time spent in space as the story moves forward. “But one of the things that was important to us is that the audience be deeply invested in this crew and their loved ones before they head up into space,” he says of the show’s long game. He thinks a “much more obvious way to go would have been to get them on their way” immediately.
“But doing that would have done a disservice to the greater story of going to Mars,” he continues. “We wanted to tell the story of the people who are fighting really hard to get to the starting line.”