Saturday, 12 July 2014

Review: CBS's EXTANT - beautiful, alluring space-baby mystery

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Television shows executive produced by Steven Spielberg usually fail to excite me, because beyond interesting concepts and fantastic production values, they rarely succeed when it comes to delivering a story you can invest in over months and years. For every Band of Brothers, The Pacific and Taken (notably finite miniseries), there's a Terra Nova, The River, and Under the Dome.

Extant, created by Mickey Fisher, feels like it has a better shot than most. The concept feels like B-movie junk on the surface—astronaut Molly Woods (Halle Berry) returns to Earth after a solo 13-month mission and discovers she's somehow pregnant—but this pilot episodes did a laudable job ensuring it didn't come across as silly. It partly did this by weaving in some other mysterious, concerning the mysterious-sounding deaths of two former colleagues, and the fact Molly's husband John (ER's Goran Visnijic) is a scientist hoping to get funding for their android son Ethan (Pierce Gagnon).

This latter element of the show was a nice surprise, and in some ways more interesting than Molly's bizarre pregnancy at the moment, and has obvious overtones of Spielberg's own A.I: Artificial Intelligence. Child actor Pierce Gagnon has a similar cherubic look to Haley Joel Osment, and the futuristic world of Extant is similarly high-tech without going overboard. The world-building of the show is an unexpected delight, actually, with plenty of gadgets you can imagine becoming reality within 20-years (the recycling bins and bathroom mirror TVs are already on my Christmas wish-list, circa 2034.)

Like most pilots, it was an hour of intrigue and set-up. A lot will rest on how well Extant pays off its mysteries, and how long it intends to remain on our screens. CBS committed to 13 episodes without seeing a pilot (either demonstrating belief in Mickey Fisher's pitch and scripts, or having certain qualitative expectations from Spielberg's involvement), but can it last much longer? It looks and feels like a miniseries to me, but U.S television have a nasty habit of stretching things beyond their means. If there is a vague five-year plan for the show, I hope the story continues to justify that. It's at least feasible to end this season with Molly giving birth to "whatever" (an alien?) and a second season dealing with the child's upbringing.

The performances were all good, and it makes sense for Halle Berry to try her luck with network television. Her post-Oscar career's been a bit of a mess (Die Another Day, Gothika, Catwoman, New Year's Eve, Movie 43), but she's a fine actress in the right role. The demands of television may suit her better, as there's a good opportunity here to develop a strong female character at the centre of what appears to be a huge conspiracy—with connections to her employer Hideki Yasumoto (Helix's Hiroyuki Sanada), who has agreed to privately finance her husband's "humanichs" project just to keep himself closer to Molly.

Overall, Extant is definitely a show I will be tuning into for awhile. The pilot did enough to get me interested in the mystery and it came across as more intelligent than the premise would have you believe. Directed by veteran TV helmsman Allen Coulter (Boardwalk Empire, House of Cards), Extant delivered a slick, enjoyable, entertaining and intriguing first hour. I just hope the next twelve are as good, because there's a very real possibility a show with this concept could be swallowed up by silliness if it's not too careful.

written by Mickey Fisher | directed by Allen Coulter | CBS (Wednesdays) | Amazon Prime UK (Thursdays)