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Sean Penn's 'The First' never achieves liftoff, while 'Forever' ponders big issues

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By Brian Lowry, CNN

The romance surrounding space travel gets a workout and then some in "The First," a Hulu series that -- despite the combination of Sean Penn and "House of Cards" producer Beau Willimon -- never comes close to achieving liftoff. Sluggishly paced and too familiar in its character beats, it's the sort of prestige project that surely looked good on paper but fizzles once exposed to air.

Set in the near future, the series opens with a diverse team of astronauts preparing to undertake the 2 1/2-year journey to Mars and back. Those plans experience a serious setback, throwing the program's future into question, leaving it to a former leader of the team, Tom Hagerty (Penn), and the aerospace magnate who championed the mission (Natascha McElhone) to navigate an asteroid field of domestic politics to secure a second chance.

In short, the thrill of leaving the bonds of Earth behind gives way to congressional hearings and bureaucracy -- a reasonable development, predicated on balancing limited resources at home against the impulse to explore, which, alas, isn't especially dramatic.

As a consequence, "The First" is weighed down in multiple ways. Penn brings a weary gravitas to the central role as part of a well-cast ensemble, wrestling with challenges and personal demons. But most of those situations come across as a trifle cliched, leaving the stirring music, by Colin Stetson, as the show's most memorable aspect.

Part of the problem is "The First" gets caught in a sort of narrative no-man's land, hewing closer to looks back at the space program than the more forward-thinking science fiction we've come to know. Even then, the earthbound storytelling feels flat compared to "The Martian" or "Apollo 13" -- with the Neil Armstrong biography "First Man" on the launchpad -- all examples of the can-do spirit that has always made the ideal of space travel so uplifting and noble.

The clear message is that scientific breakthroughs come at a price, a point McElhone's character addresses explicitly in a later episode. "When it comes to Mars, we must get used to death," she says.

"The First" does a credible job of contemplating the costs of space travel, where, to quote an old line, no one can hear you scream. But wading through season one of this stiff but earnest series, it's possible someone will hear you snore.

Bonus review: There's a better streaming series premiering the same day, but Amazon's "Forever" pretty well thwarts efforts to review it, largely because of the twists and turns that the show takes.

Starring Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph as a married couple (introduced in a long silent sequence that, alas, might be as good as the show gets), the provocative series was created by Alan Yang ("Master of None") and Matt Hubbard ("30 Rock").

Without giving anything away (which isn't easy), "Forever" tackles some big issues about life, loss and what happens to a relationship when people discover they want different things. The half-hour show does so in a manner that cleverly pulls the viewer along from episode to episode, even if its answers, while intriguing, aren't quite equal to the buildup.

Nevertheless, in its quiet way it's a more ambitious journey than "The First," keeping the audience off-balance throughout the eight episodes. That's worth something, in a series that explores a different but no less mysterious frontier.

"The First" premieres Sept. 14 on Hulu. "Forever" premieres the same day on Amazon.