Science fiction returns to network television with the much-hyped CBS sci-fi drama Extant. Network science fiction hasn’t felt this big in a while, but that’s probably because there have never been names like “Halle Berry” and “Steven Spielberg” attached to prior projects.
Since Lost left the airwaves in 2010, sci-fi hasn’t had much success on broadcast television. Fringe may have been the biggest since, but never made the cultural impact that made the networks comfortable with financing similar ventures. Fox has been the most committed to the genre, spawning vehicles such as Terra Nova, Almost Human, and Dollhouse to name a few, but none ever took off. Now it’s CBS’s turn to try their hand at it.
[Spoilers from here on out]
Extant starts off like a family drama as Halle Berry’s character, Molly Woods, is readjusting to her home life. We quickly meet her husband, John, and son, Ethan. As her evening unfolds, we are gently absorbed into the future world they live in. Computer interfaces on the bathroom mirror, super complicated trash cans, and robot children. Yes, shades of Steven Spielberg are all over this pilot, drawing inspiration from A.I., E.T. and Minority Report. There is no mistaking the Spielbergian influence on the pilot. The heavy mix of family conflict amid out-of-this-world drama has been a cornerstone of his movie filmography; one that allows viewers to connect with the protagonists on a human level while otherwise unbelievable events unfold. This may be the key to a successful run on TV, too.
The show’s hook—how a woman in solitude for months could be pregnant—sells the mystery that will keep audiences wondering for now, but won’t be enough to drive the series for 13 episodes. There seems to be enough evidence for viewers to understand the how. The why or the what seems to be the biggest puzzle. With added sub-plots involving corporate conspiracy and espionage and the whole dimension of “is she just crazy?”, the show will have enough twists and turns going forward.
With Oscar award winning talent on board, the bar is set high. Nearly throughout, the show delivered. The episode was filmed beautifully, like a 45-minute cinematic thriller. The casting of Pierce Gagnon (Looper) was perhaps the best acquisition by the casting department. His performance will be talked about all season long as he delivers both charm and creepiness throughout the pilot.
Extant is not without its blemishes. Goran Visnjic (E.R.) never quite seems comfortable playing Molly’s husband (though he plays dedicated father and scientist to the T). And for all the promoting CBS did in revealing the early twist (the pregnancy), the scene unfolded like a pair of wooden puppets reading lines. There are other times where it feels like Berry is phoning it in (her interrogation scene, her telling John about the incident in the park). However, there is enough positive in Extant to make these setbacks more forgivable.
Despite the flashy special effects and imaginative set pieces, Extant‘s real charm is its exploration of life itself. Ethan’s character being the centerpiece of a discussion on what is real, John strives to make the case for artificial intelligence being as alive as any one of us. When challenged on the point that Ethan has no soul and is therefore not alive, John casually remarks that the belief in souls could be considered as artificial as his own son. His view may be that life (as we define it) isn’t any more significant than existing and being aware of that existence.
The word extant wonderfully describes many of the layers working on this show. On the one hand, there is John trying to validate that his son is as real as anyone. On the other, we have something growing in Molly that is alive, trying to survive. Every commercial break, the title card hints to something beyond the term “extant”. This show is not just about living, but also dying. As the word “extinct” drifts away, it eludes to something more to come. Our extinction? The return of something believed to be extinct? Ultimately, who will be extant?
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