tv review

Extant Threatens to Float off Into Space, But at Least It’s Pretty to Look At

Photo: CBS

I can’t quite recommend CBS’s science-fiction miniseries Extant, which debuts tonight. I have misgivings about it — the lead performances are a tad opaque, and the script feels as though it’s telling two separate stories that don’t immediately seem as though they’ll connect in a graceful way — but because CBS only sent the pilot to critics, who knows how well-founded they are? Future episodes might put my worries to rest and make the opening chapter seem like brilliant seed-planting in retrospect, or Extant could lose air slowly, like a ruptured spacecraft’s hull.

At least tonight’s premiere gives you a sense of what mode Extant is working in — creepy-atmospheric, early Polanski horror — and verifies that CBS has indeed thrown a ton of money at the production, hiring Oscar-winner Halle Berry to play the astronaut heroine and Goran Višnjić, Camryn Manheim and Looper’s Pierce Gagnon to back her up, and building a world with a Minority Report/A.I. vibe. As written by series creator Mickey Fisher, directed by Allen Coulter, and executive produced by Steven Spielberg, this future is no utopia. It only seems shiny and full of promise. There’s an undercurrent of dissatisfaction. Doom is waiting in the wings.

Berry plays Molly, an astronaut who spends 13 months in a space station and returns to Earth pregnant. This is doubly surprising in that 1) it was a solo mission and 2) she’s infertile. Her husband, John (Višnjić), is a charismatic tech guru who built Molly an artificially intelligent son (Gagnon) and then decided to use him as the prototype for a product line. Molly has visions, or dreams, or hallucinations. Something happened to her in the spaceship. There’s no video record, but something happened. Cue theremin music. Actually, I wish I could cue theremin music, not while watching Extant, but out in the world, when I’m just walking around doing stuff.

But as always, I digress. Is the robot son defective, or evil? Is John arrogant and distracted or a secretly malevolent plotter who has made some sort of devil’s bargain like the husband in Rosemary’s Baby, a film that Extant sometimes strives to evoke? Is Molly carrying the spawn of an alien, or an extradimensional being, or Satan himself? Are Berry’s faintly mask-like reactions to profoundly disturbing situations indicative of trauma, emotional recessiveness, or poor direction? Is this miniseries pure science fiction, or it is a fable or supernatural horror film in science-fictional drag? These questions will be answered in the next 12 episodes to our satisfaction, or they won’t. I like that Extant gives serious screen time and consideration to philosophical issues, including the moral ramifications of creating artificially intelligent but inorganic creatures to use as servants or adopted “children.” That’s a rare thing, and it’s refreshing. I wish I could say other nice things about it, but as one of Molly’s space agency supervisors might say, this file has gaps.

*This article appears in the July 14, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

TV Review: Extant