Hilary Swank makes a triumphant return to series television in “Away,” a combination outer-space/terrestrial drama that strikes a nice balance on both ends of that storytelling spectrum — never an easy task. The 10-episode Netflix series, created by Andrew Hinderaker, finds Swank in the role of Emma Green, a NASA astronaut who’s commanding the first …
Hilary Swank makes a triumphant return to series television in “Away,” a combination outer-space/terrestrial drama that strikes a nice balance on both ends of that storytelling spectrum — never an easy task.
The 10-episode Netflix series, created by Andrew Hinderaker, finds Swank in the role of Emma Green, a NASA astronaut who’s commanding the first manned mission to Mars with an international crew. The mission will last three years — the longest outer-space flight in history — and, if that’s not daunting enough, Green and her crew are expected to focus on the expedition at the expense of their loved ones (and everything that entails) back on Earth. For Green, that’s her husband, NASA engineer Matt Logan (Josh Charles), and her teenage daughter, Alexis (Talitha Bateman). Matt was supposed to lead the mission; medical complications kept him behind in Houston with Alexis, who isn’t coping well with Emma’s decision to leave her family behind — just as she’s entering high school and needs her mother’s emotional support.
The astronauts can communicate with their families via video chats for about six months post-liftoff before their distance from Earth makes that impossible (cell phones and texting, apparently, can continue). It’s through these video chats (and a series of flashbacks) that we learn the backstories of Emma’s team aboard the Atlas: surly Russian cosmonaut Misha Popov (Mark Ivanir), who’s logged more time in space than any man (or animal); chemist Lu Wang (Vivian Lu), trapped in a loveless marriage and who will be the first human to set foot on Mars; second-in-command Ram Arya (Ray Panthaki), who’s estranged from his parents in India; and Kwesi Weisberg-Abban (Ato Essandoh), a world-renowned botanist born in Ghana and raised in England by adoptive parents. He’s making his first space flight.
As you might expect, problems and tensions are exacerbated on the way to Mars, not only between Green and her crew, but between the individual crew members and their families back home. Emma needs to not only win back the trust and confidence of Popov, Wang et al. — there was an incident that occurred en route to the moon (their departure point to Mars) — while juggling an emergency back home that puts her under severe emotional strain and tests her resolve in ways she never could have imagined. Ditto for her crew, whose mettle is continuously tested during the interminable, arduous — and extremely lonely — journey through the suffocating void and darkness of space.
“Away” works on several levels. Its top-notch special effects do not, as we’ve seen so many times before, overpower the show’s human core but rather blend in seamlessly, functioning more as a supporting character than a bombastic distraction. Kudos to the show’s writers and directors for providing the tools to create multi-dimensional characters you really care about as you’re simultaneously rooting for, disliking and empathizing with them, sometimes in the course of one scene. Most of all, though, “Away” weaves a seamless connection between the drama onboard the Atlas and back on Earth with Swank, the series’ titular star, leading the way in a bravura performance combining emotional fragility with a gung-ho resoluteness that resonates in each and every episode.