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Review: Swank soaps up space in intriguing 'Away'

'This is Us' meets 'Star Trek' in new Netflix drama

Tom Long
Special to The Detroit News

Sometimes interesting tops good. “Away” is interesting.

Hilary Swank stars as Emma Green. She's an America astronaut in charge of mankind’s first mission to Mars, leading an international team which also includes British botanist Kwesi (Ato Essandoh), Russian Misha (Mark Ivanir), China’s Lu (Vivian Wu) and India’s Ram (Ray Panthaki).

Hilary Swank in "Away."

OK, so we’re going to Mars… again. Cue the harrowing space walks, the fiery lift-offs and descents, the twinkling stars against vast blackness. And “Away” does have all that.

But it also has Emma’s astronaut husband Matt (Josh Charles) and teenage daughter Alexis (Talitha Eliana Bateman) back on earth. Emma has barely gotten things rolling when Matt has a medical calamity. Should she turn back from the three-year mission?

That would make for a one-episode series, so of course not. Off she blasts and “Away” becomes part sci fi, part soap opera as Emma struggles to reconcile the strains and stresses of leading a dangerous mission and oft-contentious crew with the strains and stresses of motherhood.

A gasket blows and everybody might die in a fireball but then there’s the worry of Alexis with a new boyfriend. Their water is running low but should Matt continue with his physical therapy? And in grand soap opera fashion, romantic complications inevitably arise.

There are obvious beats and rhythms — each character has a backstory episode, most episodes have A Very Dangerous Thing — and the soap bubbles often threaten to overwhelm, but they mostly pop just in time. By season’s end a second season without all the setups looks promising.

One of the producers here is Jason Katims ("Friday Night Lights,” “Parenthod”) and the warm familial intimacy of his previous shows flows through “Away.” The cast is uniformly strong and there’s a reason Swank has two Oscars. “Away” isn’t great but it is unique, and that’s good enough.

Tom Long is a longtime contributor to The Detroit News.