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Last summer CBS did a smart and surprising thing by making summer programming both interesting and relevant for broadcast networks with Under the Dome, a series from Steven Spielberg‘s Amblin Entertainment that seemed shockingly good until it wasn’t. That is, after millions of people made CBS believe that “event programming” was the wave of the future in the formerly dreary ratings landscape of summer, many of those same people became less enamored with a bogged-down and confusing story that was supposed to at least have some resolution, not spawn possible spinoffs and repeat summer seasons.
Part of the allure of event programming is that it’s supposed to be impermanent, splashy, perhaps epic and play by its own rules. And then it’s over, replaced by another, different event — not another season. That would turn the “event” into a regular TV show.
Once CBS started envisioning domes popping up all over the place, Under the Dome became less special, its drawn-out mystery more annoying than intriguing and the notion of the show being special gave way to the show being just another product.
Forgive the lack of excitement, then, for Extant, the splashy new event programming summer series from CBS and — surprise — Steven Spielberg and Amblin Entertainment. It stars Halle Berry, and you can bet that if the numbers are good (for CBS, good means huge), then instead of a one-and-done experiment in luring summer audiences to network television — a place they’ve generally ignored like, say, Arizona in July — it will be back again next summer, just as Under the Dome is back this summer.
That might be good for business, but it’s not so great for storytelling.
The premise of Extant is decent enough: Halle Berry’s character, astronaut Molly Woods, goes on a solo space mission and comes home pregnant. OK, sure. But that’s the kind of hook-me-now, explain-how-it-evolves-some-other-time kind of network-suit gratification that ultimately alienates viewers. Extant seems, in the hourlong pilot given to critics, intent on hooking viewers with what might be, without giving much hint of what will be.
Extant starts off, in fact, at some unstated point in the future where we can develop artificial intelligence in human-looking “humantics,” but nobody making the show seems interested in mundane technology such as printing the year it takes place on the screen. If Extant wants to be vague, it’s doing a great job. Most of the hour seems like a murky dream without much technical assuredness — just visuals that hints at “something sci-fi like in the future” and lets it go at that. For example, there are Google-like driverless cars, a whole lot of translucent computer screens that pop up out of thin air, plus some weird buildings, but it doesn’t actually seem like it’s set in the future. Well, except that, in the Extant era, we have awesome trash cans.
After an hour of minor hints that the government has outsourced space travel and humantics development to the private sector, viewers may start believing that Extant is being vague on purpose — because it doesn’t know what it’s doing, or what story it’s telling.
Despite having Berry and a sci-fi idea that, while not super-original, is still intriguing, Extant lays flat for most of the hour, failing to set the hook. This is one example where the previews are significantly more thrilling than the pilot. Hell, Berry plays Woods like she works at the DMV — and she’s married to Goran Visnjic and they have the least passionate kiss in the last 10 years of television. How does that happen? As husband John, Visnjic seems to be playing off a note from either Spielberg or CBS that read, “Try not to be sexy or interesting. You are a serious scientist.” Anyway, John created an AI kid named Ethan (Pierce Gagnon), partly because he and Molly couldn’t conceive (well, if the kissing was any indication …) and partly because he’s not worried at all about robots that look and act like people and what might go wrong with that, even if the kid playing Ethan was also the crazy and dangerous kid in Looper.
Extant comes from first-time series creator Mickey Fisher, who won a screenwriting contest with what was essentially the pilot idea and now he’s helming a major summer event from CBS.
If you’re not worried about where Extant might go henceforth, you’re not really paying attention.
On the other hand, Extant is not in a hurry to be anywhere, good or bad. It moves slowly, seems unsure of itself and of its direction, and then throws a twist of sorts into the middle when we find out that Molly’s old, dead sweetheart showed up in space (though he doesn’t appear on any of the space shuttle cameras). Could he be the father? Sure. Does a dead guy showing up in space cause a freak-out when you’re watching Extant? No, because the dead space sweetheart seems pretty relaxed, like he’s going to get paid for 13 episodes — minimum — whether viewers stick around or not.
Of course, viewers may indeed get hooked. Even if this fine idea isn’t really shot in a way that gets the blood pumping, lots of people will undoubtedly tune in to see for themselves. If the number is big enough, maybe CBS will make sure Extant stays in space for ages.
That doesn’t change the languid nature of the pilot, but perhaps it spawned a network note to tighten things the hell up for the second episode.
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