When I began watching Away, the new drama from Netflix starring Hilary Swank and Josh Charles, it was nineteen dickety-dick. The Earth was three-degrees cooler. Halley’s Comet had just passed by. I was a strapping man with the metabolism of a hummingbird. I was young and naive, and I did not yet know the horrors of this world. It was a simpler time. The United States was among the countries with the best quality of life.
Yesterday, I finally finished Away. I’ve had three children, who have all moved off to college since I sat down to watch the first episode of the Netflix series. Halley’s Comet has passed by again. I have turned completely gray and gained 35 pounds in that time. Jason Mantzoukas grew a beard, and shaved it off, and grew a beard again 16 times since a shuttle left Earth headed toward Mars in the first episode of Away. I have lived through three Trump terms, and our quality of life has dropped precipitously. The Rocky Mountains are now the only part of America still above sea level, and we all live in domed, underwater cities.
I missed so much while I was watching Away, a television series about a group of astronauts who take a three-year voyage to Mars. The entire series is filmed in real-time and airs on Netflix exclusively in slow-motion. Remember in Interstellar when Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway’s characters descend into an ocean world, where time is severely dilated, and when they return, David Gyasi’s character is 23 years older? That’s what it’s like to watch Away — the world has moved on, but I just sat in front of my television for 23 long years watching Hilary Swank journey to Mars.
For the unfamiliar, Away comes from exec-producer Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights, Parenthood), which is how the promotion for Away tricked me into giving up 23 years of my life to watch a series that’s actually from Andrew Hinderaker and the creative team behind The Path, which was not a very good show. Away bills itself primarily as a family drama about a mother, Emma Green (Swank), leaving behind her husband, Matt Logan (Charles), and daughter Alexis (Talitha Eliana Bateman), for three years to captain the first manned mission to Mars. The marketing for Away promised space action and wrenching emotional drama! That is not what it delivers.
To wit: Minor spoilers here, but — and I kid you not — the last several episodes of Away center on the ship’s water supply. There is, like, a water filtration system with 1,000 pieces that the crew has to disassemble and re-assemble using parts from the back-up system. The engineering astronaut has gone blind, so he has to direct the others to disassemble and re-assemble it, so we have to listen to him direct other people, and oh my god, I had to shave three times during that sequence alone.
The team of five astronauts, including Vivian Wu, Mark Ivanir, Ato Essandoh, and Ray Panthaki, gets the Lost flashback treatment: We learn a little about their backstory as they are dealing with a challenge in the present, like, for instance, disassembling and re-assembling a water filtration system. Essandoh’s botanist astronaut is religious; Wu’s astronaut is queer but can’t be with the woman she loves because of China’s oppressive regime; Ivanir’s astronaut is going blind but also feels emasculated by having a slightly younger, female astronaut as the captain; while Panthaki’s astronaut is in love with Swank’s Emma, with whom he has negative zero chemistry.
Meanwhile, back at home, Alexis — the daughter character — is the second coming of Dana Brody, one of those annoying, needy teenage daughters who manage to be both goody-goodies and completely reckless (see also Julie Taylor). After her father suffers a stroke and is left paralyzed from the waist down, Alexis acts out by … taking up motocross and going to Mass with a boy who is two years older than she is. GASP!
Meanwhile, the draw to Away for me, aside from Jason Katims’ name on it, is Josh Charles, who plays the Dad/husband, and who suffers a stroke in the first episode and is left in a wheelchair for the rest of the first season. He spends much of the series in a rehab facility and the rest of it throwing shit across rooms in frustration. There’s no charm. There’s no Josh Charles twinkle. He’s an unhappy character who leaves his wife insipid messages containing the sounds of the rain, and when he’s not doing that, he’s lecturing his daughter about motocross or rejecting the advances of his neighbor. Charles does the best he can with the character, but the writing is bad. It’s centered on greeting-card platitudes, stern looks, and single tears that roll softly down the cheeks of these characters, as though choreographed to trickle at just the right speed.
The worst thing about Away, however, is that it never seems to end. This is a major spoiler for those who still plan to put yourselves through an excruciating 23-year-long series, but what may be the most frustrating thing about Away is that it is probably designed to run three seasons because it ends with the mission finally landing on Mars. Twenty-three years I watched Away, and they have just now landed on their destination planet. I’m sure there will be another season that takes place on Mars, and yet another season that sees them travel back to Earth while disassembling and reassembling a space toilet. I can’t imagine watching three seasons of Away, not least of which is because it would take up 69 years of my life, and I’d like to be able to play with my grandkids before they turn 30.
Header Image Source: Netflix