I’m kind of excited about this one. For all the other show’s I’ve recapped before – “Orange is the New Black,’’ “Game of Thrones,’’ “24: Live Another Day’’ – I’ve jumped in the middle of their runs, having some sense of their universe. This time, I’m like everyone else. With “Extant,’’ it’s a blank canvas. I’ve got no clue how this one’s going to go. It might be quality like the others, or it might be a flop of epic proportions (I’ll link to one of my favorite Wikipedia pages here). For my sake and yours, I hope that “Extant’’ swings more towards the former.
At least it seems like an interesting show to start off with. In a lot of ways, “Extant’’ is completely representative of the new frontier of American television – essentially, copying the model that’s worked in England for years. It’s shorter, with only 13 episodes as opposed to the traditional 20- to 24-episode dramatic series. It’s got tons of behind-the-screens pedigree, with Hollywood King Midas producer Steven Spielberg (although, to be fair, his last big television production was the expensive dinosaur flop “Terra Nova’’) and veteran “Sopranos’’ director Allen Coulter. In front of the camera, it’s got a bona-fide, A-list, Oscar-winning movie star, with Halle Berry joining Matthew McConaughey and Kevin Spacey as the little gold men-holders fleeing for the new freedom and creativity American television now allows. We were all the better for it for “True Detective’’ and “House of Cards’’; Berry, superficially, makes for a strong case to be #3. She’s fantastic, but the 13 years since “Monster’s Ball’’ have been a mash of flops (“Catwoman,’’ “Cloud Atlas’’), muddled thrillers (“Perfect Stranger,’’ “Gothika’’) and glorified cameos in the “X-Men’’ series. Berry deserves better.
I’m not quite sure that “Extant’’ is the right vehicle for her smaller-screen entry. It’s an odd duck of a show, one that mashes together elements from a batch of unfortunate 1990s sci-fi flicks. There are elements of “A.I.’’ and “Event Horizon’’ and “Bicentennial Man’’ and “The Astronaut’s Wife’’ and the sequel to “Species’’ in here. Didn’t see any of those movies? You’re not alone. No one else did. Somehow, bits of plot shook off from those flops, congealed together and spawned into a big-budget summer television show with an Oscar winner at its core. What a strange mix.
Still, it’s watchable and competent, in the best traditions of CBS, which means it’ll probably be a ratings-gobbling hit. There’s certainly a ton of stuff going on in the pilot. It’s the future, and Berry’s astronaut Molly Woods is an astronaut just arrived back on Earth to her husband, John (a bland Goran Visjnic) and son, Ethan (a Damien from “The Omen’’-like Pierce Gagnon) after thirteen months in space. It’s not too long before we get the first big sci-fi twist of the show. The kid’s a robot, a supremely human-looking and acting one whipped up by techno-wizard John, with a double-battery pack that pops out of his back and has to be changed around like an electric razor. He’s creepier than your average kid, too. He pushes another kiddo down at a welcome-back party and then squishes a bird after a park temper tantrum. It turns out the Woods family could be well on their way to raising the T-1000.
The second big bombshell? Well, it’s something the stork – or something a lot creepier – brought. Somehow, in that year-plus-long mission in space, Woods got herself pregnant, as she learns in a meeting with her doctor friend (Camryn Manheim, a welcome return back to television). How did it happen? Whoo, flashback time. Let’s go to space! Now, we’re getting some real future. Woods is on her space station, only accompanied by her computer, BEN (nowhere near as evil as HAL) when the lights go out … and she’s somehow greeted by her long-dead astronaut ex-lover, dressed in casual clothes, talking monosyllabically (like an alien? or a robot?) and scratching HELP ME in window condensation. Super-creepy. A later camera reveals that it was either a dream or a ghost or something even weirder. These scenes work real well. Kudos to Coulter, the director – he could make a damn good horror film one day.
Back on earth, Woods stalls for time to cover up the pregnancy to figure the whole thing out. There’s some shadowy stuff going on at her astro-company (apparently space exploration has been privatized in the future); there’s distinct echoes of the “Alien’’ Weyland-Yutani conglomerate here. The ISEA is headed by the evil Yasumoto, who sleeps in some kind of weird tomb covered in goop and wakes up to a meal of the world’s worst-looking tapas, all while conspiring to monitor Woods’s actions. It sounds like they’re doing some ant-farm experimenting on their astronauts. There are eerie allusions to some other dead spacemen, including one named Harmon who apparently had some kind of crazy meltdown during his mission. Space ghosts may or may not have been to blame. Honestly, I just like saying “space ghosts.’’
Turns out that Yasumoto is involved in John’s affairs, too. John gives a science-project talk to a bunch of investors with Ethan as his showcase. Ethan’s the prototype to a new line of human-like robots called humanics (probably should mention “I, Robot’’ in the influences) that needs a few bucks to get off the ground. The presentation implodes on John, but Yasumoto lends him some private money to get in even deeper with the Woods family.
There’s enough time for one more big twist at the end, as Molly goes to take out the future trash only to find Harmon, the thought-dead astronaut, waiting to talk to her. Kind of a predictable twist – the show practically gives it away earlier – but it does set up some intriguing scenarios for the show coming up. Even better, the “this season on…’’ shows us that Louis Gossett Jr. is in the cast. This is great! I loved “Officer and a Gentleman.’’
So, some big-picture thoughts about the show:
– Did it work? Yeah, too a degree. Again, there’s certainly enough here to keep it interesting. But it might be too much – the intersection of the two sci-fi plot lines seems like a reach. Also, big whiff on the Visjnic casting. That might be a fatal blow.
– The best thing about the premiere – much like Spielberg’s awesome (and awesomely underrated) “Minority Report,’’ it underplays the future. Like that movie, the new era is seen in the everyday, little things, things that you see and can actually envision happening sooner rather than later. In “Minority Report,’’ it was a talking video on a cereal box and billboards that scanned eyes to recommend goods to passerby; in this one, it’s a super high-tech garbage can and picture books that can be tapped on to display moving pictures, like printed Vines. It feels like the future.
– Oh, here’s the definition of extant. I had to look it up.
– Pierce Gagnon, who plays Ethan, was also the little kid in “Looper,’’ a movie which I really, really loved. That “wait, I know that kid …’’ had been gnawing at me the entire show.
– I did recognize Annie Wersching as the scientist who raised some robot ethics questions in John’s presentation; she played Renee Walker on “24,’’ Jack Bauer’s compadre in killing and ever-so-briefly in love. Unfortunately, she only had one scene. Her screen time better grow as the season goes on. And she better take out at least twenty terrorists.
– Oh, some final cast notes. Ethan’s teacher is played by Mamie Gummer, Meryl Streep’s daughter, and Yasumoto is played by Hiroyuki Sanada, who was excellent in the little-seen “Railway Man’’ from earlier this year.
– So, final grade for the episode? B-, with some potential for the future. I don’t see this developing into a classic, but it could be a fun little summer hit.