Whats the matter with Mars? Season 2 struggles to find footing on Red Planet

Mars is hard. Hard to get to, hard to make habitable for humans, hard to tell a story about on the screen and leave the viewer with any lasting impression.

With a few shining exceptions -- looking at you, The Martian -- all Mars movies have bombed. From Mission to Mars with Tim Robbins in 2000 to The Last Days on Mars with Liev Schreiber in 2012, even supernatural thrillers have failed to locate deposits of decent drama on the Red Planet. And the TV version hasn't fared much better.

SEE ALSO: Mars might hold enough oxygen under its surface for life

Witness Hulu's new original series The First: ostensibly about the first Mars mission, it doesn't even bother to make us care about the destination, focusing one entire season on sad Sean Penn and his earthbound struggles.

National Geographic's Mars, which returns for a second season of six episodes starting Monday, would seem to have everything going for it in its bid to be the one Mars drama you should actually watch.

Like The Martian, it focuses on the problems of Red Planet living and the need for humans to "science the shit" out of them (even if this PG production would never use the salty language of Martian's Mark Watney, which is a pity).

National Geographic dubs this "hybrid drama." I call it the death of drama.

Unlike The First, Mars doesn't put its baby planet in the corner. The rust-and-dust landscape was front and center from Mars Season 1 episode 1 (which was, so far as I can find, the first serious on-screen portrayal of humans reaching Mars for the first time; even The Martian shied away from showing the actual historic arrival).

So why do all 12 episodes so far (including Season 2, which I've seen) seem a struggle to get through? Why does the drama feel so oxygen-deprived? Why do I, a space nerd and very much the target audience, feel like I'm being forced to eat Mark Watney's Mars-grown potatoes?

Ron Howard produces. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Elon Musk and a host of other luminaries pop up throughout to talk about what a real mission to Mars might be like. Nick Cave wrote a theme so bleak and ominous, you half expect a police procedural set on the slopes of Olympus Mons.

On paper, what you get for Season 2 should be no less thrilling. Having established a base, suffered deadly sandstorms and found bacterial life, our scientist-colonists now must share the planet with new arrivals from a SpaceX-esque private corporation. Hello, timely analogy for Earth's struggle between scientific truth and corporate greed!

A moody moment for Marta on 'Mars'. Credit: National Geographic/Richard Donnelly

The first and most obvious problem is the show's insistence on intercutting between Mars in the 2040s and interviews on Earth today every 5 to 10 minutes. National Geographic dubs this "hybrid drama." I call it the death of drama.

Not even the most riveting epics on television could survive such a back-and-forth.

Imagine Game of Thrones if the action stopped every few scenes while talking heads discuss, say, dragons actually being a metaphor for nuclear weapons in modern warfare. Even if it was George R.R. Martin himself holding forth on the topic, you'd probably prefer he wait until after the episode.

By squeezing what is essentially two programs into every 45-minute episode, Mars manages to massively short-change both of them.

On the documentary side, NatGeo has assembled a dream team of authors, from Andy Weir (The Martian) to Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel) to Kim Stanley Robinson (The Mars Trilogy), but we rarely get to hear more than a sentence from them. Nor do we really get to know the scientist in Greenland or the Greenpeace activist that are too briefly profiled.

Instead, for the most part, we get crisis cliché: dramatic montages of a kind you've seen a thousand times. News footage of people fighting; streets flooding; headlines saying STUFF IS BAD; CNN anchors saying STUFF IS BAD; cut to expert saying "could it be better on Mars, or would we make the same mistakes?"

By squeezing what is essentially two programs into every 45-minute episode, Mars manages to massively short-change both of them.

(Also, a personal plea to NatGeo on behalf of those of us who assumed a show called Mars would help us escape his shadow: Please, no more soundbites of Trump denying climate change in this show ever again.)

On the 22-minute drama side, likewise, no character in this too-big ensemble feels at all fleshed out. The script prefers moody close-ups and flat voice-over to character depth. It's practically crying out for some snappy one-liners to relieve the grimness; why would we go to Mars and leave our sense of humor behind?

Also, despite the background-level arrival of a Chinese space station that is said to be broadcasting 24-7 as a kind of reality show, there's no sense that the characters exist in a social media near-future. Where are all the smartphones and tablets? If they can communicate with Earth, can't they also get Facebook? Shouldn't the colonists all be on a local version of Slack, at least?

Given no scenes they can really sink their teeth into, the actors mostly chew the Martian scenery. If a future Mars civilization has telenovelas, they might look like this. Just with fewer documentary breaks.

Take the most promising new character, Commander Kurt Hurrelle, the man in charge of the Lukrum corporation's on-planet operation. He's played by Jeff Hephner (Chicago Fire) with sheer bro-ish assholery. Hurrelle would be an interesting villain -- if you ever learned a single complex detail about him like, say, his motivations for coming to Mars, or what happened in his past to make him such a jerk to scientists.

Commander Hana Seung has a free and frank exchange of views with Commander Kurt Hurrelle of Lukrum Corp. Credit: National Geographic/Dusan Martincek

There are stupid decisions aplenty, plus brief brawls and romances between the scientists and the corporates. But these aren't really woven into the fabric of the show, which hits the reset button in relations between the two camps every episode, and hits a giant reset button at the end of the season.

That said, we also end with a heartwarming development for the colonists that cracks open the first real signs of life for this show. No spoilers, but given that the show isn't afraid of jumping forward in time, I'm optimistic that Season 3 can find its footing.

That is, if Mars can separate the two sides of its hybrid. I experimented by watching just the dramatic scenes in an episode, then rewinding and watching the documentary bits. It felt like an improvement. Showrunner Dee Johnson told me she would be open to the idea of National Geographic "remixing" the show this way.

I hope so. Because like those dear two-dimensional colonist characters who narrowly escaped being called home at the end of Season 1, I stubbornly refuse to believe we've come this far and struggled this much and eaten this many potatoes to fail.

I really hope we're on Mars to stay.

'Mars' Season 2 premieres on Monday at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT on the National Geographic Channel.

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