Netflix’s “Away” is the kind of heartfelt melodrama that can end an episode in which a protagonist is literally in outer space with Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” and just barely get away with it. On the other hand, having a relationship form in the next episode over a karaoke version of Elton John’s “Rocketman” might be a bit much for a space show. How much one can tolerate these kind of on-the-nose needle drops should offer some idea how much one will take to this character drama that just happens to be set in space.
From acclaimed TV producer Jason Katims, “Away” is unapologetically maudlin and manipulative, often playing too much like an old-fashioned drama than a show with anything modern to say. It may take on a futuristic idea like a manned mission to Mars, but it does so with an emotional, character-driven writing style that feels like a throwback to the shows that made Katims a star. It has that same massive heart that Katims utilized in “Parenthood” and “Friday Night Lights,” but it too often lacks the ensemble depth and stakes of those beloved dramas. Most of all, it suffers greatly from the dreaded Netflix bloat. So while there are stars that shine in this interstellar drama, too much of it feels grounded to the earth.
Emma Green (Hilary Swank) is one of the most important women in the universe, chosen to be the commander of a mission to Mars. Her husband Matt (Josh Charles) and daughter Alexis (Talitha Eliana Bateman) are stuck back on Earth, although “Away” posits a world of pretty easy communication with mom out in space. At least until she gets closer to the red planet, Emma can call home and check in with husband and daughter. She has further reason to do so after Matt has a stroke in the series premiere, leaving him confined to a bed and unsure if he’ll ever walk again. As Alexis takes on the maternal role in the house, helping to care for her father instead of worrying about her homework, Emma has to handle an issue-of-the-episode crisis aboard her ship.
At least for the first half of the season, pretty much everyone on Emma’s ship gets a crisis that helps define their character episode by episode. For example, Lu (Vivian Wu) gets to anchor episode three, revealing that she had to hide a lesbian relationship back in China. Being outed aboard her ship leads to crisis, as well as the concern she’ll never talk to her love again. The next episode, Ram (Ray Panthaki) ends up with a space disease that could put the whole crew in jeopardy. “Away” balances waves of issues that Emma needs to manage with by showing how Alexis and Matt are doing at home while mom is away. The divide between loved ones who can only communicate via videoconferencing will have different energy in September 2020 than anyone could have guessed. A lot of people are “away” from loved ones this year.
Most of “Away” is unexpectedly timely and well-intentioned, but its stakes really start to drag. The cycle of a new crisis that Emma is suited to solve every episode grows tiring even only halfway through the season. The cast is all solid—Josh Charles has been so underrated in his consistency over the years and Mark Ivanir and Ato Essandoh fill out a strong ensemble—but the show is remarkably easy to dismiss even as its emotional manipulations are working on you. I was moved at times by the human display of courage and the show’s big heart, but that’s kind of an easy trick to pull, and there’s just not enough going on here to register on a deeper level. Most of all, it just doesn’t feel designed for ten episodes. I showed my wife the preview a few weeks ago and wondered aloud how the concept could maintain ten hours of runtime. She was startled and said, “Wait, I thought that was a preview for a movie. It’s a series? Why?” I still don’t really have an answer for her.
Five episodes screened for review.