Netflix’s ‘Away’ orbits around astronaut family tension in a predictable but satisfying Season 1

Netflix’s newest drama is marked by an intense astronaut mission, cinematic visuals, and an atmospheric score — so at first glance, it looks like an epic sci-fi adventure. In actuality, it plays more like a familiar family drama that just happens to be backdropped by space.

Created by Parenthood executive producer Jason Katims, Away takes place in a near-future where a group of five international astronauts, headed by Hilary Swank’s Commander Emma Green, aim to become the first people to step foot on Mars.

Half of the series takes place in the stars. Emma and her team have a 3-year journey to and from the Red Planet, and on the way there, they’re forced to deal with many physical and emotional challenges. There’s always something going wrong on the spaceship, and there’s constantly someone on it who is longing for their lover, child, or brother, as revealed through a series of flashbacks. The other side of the series takes place back on Earth, centering primarily on the conflicts faced by Emma’s NASA engineer husband, Matt (Josh Charles), and her 15-year-old daughter, Lex (Talitha Bateman). While Matt is balancing single-parenthood with the debilitating aftereffects of a recent stroke, Lex is navigating first love, her fraying relationship with her mom and dad, and the looming fear that she will one day suffer from her father’s stroke-causing disease.

Away smoothly courses through the Green family’s storylines.

Away smoothly courses through the Green family’s storylines. It evenly develops Emma, Matt, and Lex’s realities in a way that makes it easy to empathize with all of them at the same time, even when their goals are conflicting. This is made possible by strong writing and polished acting skills, particularly from Swank.

The two-time Academy Award winner brings authenticity to her character, who is constantly hiding her vulnerable side beneath a tough forefront. She feels believable. And though her character is not the most interesting astronaut on the mission, it’s hard to imagine Away without Swank.

But she is not the only standout. The members of Emma’s space crew are also well-acted. There’s Ram (Ray Panthaki), an Indian Air Force pilot who deals with loneliness; Lu (Vivian Wu), a Chinese chemist who wants to honor her family and country but struggles with a personal secret; Misha (Mark Ivanir), a Russian engineer who made huge sacrifices to get to space; and Kwesi (Ato Essandoh), a faith-filled biologist anxious about his first flight. Their storylines and personalities complement one another in a way that keeps the tension sizzling. However, it’s impossible to talk about these characters and their worlds without also thinking about how tropey they are. Because while Away is a moderately entertaining series, it’s also one you’ll feel like you’ve seen before.

Image: Diyah Pera / Netflix

The show thrives on constant melodrama — from sickness on the spaceship to an unexpected motor vehicle accident on Earth. It’s engaging, but it’s not particularly original or complex.

And though Emma’s crew is full of compelling characters, not all of their pasts are fully fleshed-out. While flashbacks to their pre-flight lives are at first dense with backstory, they fizzle out toward the end until — in the last two episodes — there aren’t any flashbacks. While I liked Matt and Lex, the simpler aspects of their day-to-day lives could have been replaced by a more layered exploration of the astronauts’ viewpoints. Instead, we get scenes from their pasts that feel stripped-down and predictable. I could guess where a series of flashbacks were headed solely from the opening scene. There were no surprises.

It feels as if these characters will never experience true loss or suffer lasting consequences as a result of their choices. This makes them less relatable.

Building off of this, the stakes never felt high enough, despite the constant conflict. Sure, the whole crew could die on the way to Mars. But because they’re always about to die and always figuring out how to push forward, it feels as if these characters will never experience true loss or suffer lasting consequences as a result of their choices. This makes them less relatable.

I had hoped that Away‘s first season would go out with a bang — that maybe a few big twists or an inconclusive ending would leave me eager for a Season 2. It didn’t do that. But while the show’s finale goes as expected, there are plenty of storylines left to tackle. If the writers dive deep into the show’s unexplored plots — like the attraction between a couple of characters separated by circumstance, as confirmed in the end — and find an original way to up the ante in the process, Away has the potential to be great in its second season.

If you’re hoping to blast off into an original, mind-blowing adventure, you better look elsewhere. However, if a predictable family drama backed by a space setting is enough to satisfy you, this journey is worth launching.

Away is now streaming on Netflix.

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