Review: Halle Berry keeps CBS’ ‘Extant’ in orbit despite its odd turns
The starry, starring presence of Halle Berry instantly makes an event of “Extant,” a new science-fiction series from CBS premiering Wednesday.
That Steven Spielberg is an executive producer has also been shouted to the skies, but he has been mixed up with television for years, with mixed results; currently he is also an executive producer of “Under the Dome,” the network’s other summer sci-fi serial now in its second season, which can at times be very silly indeed.
In “Extant,” Berry plays Molly Woods, an astronaut who returns to Earth after 13 months alone in space to find herself impossibly pregnant. We also learn, within the first five minutes, that her young son, Ethan (Pierce Gagnon), is an android. These are not spoilers.
We are in the near future — not so far from now that people don’t still drink margaritas, use pencils and hang “Welcome Back, Mom” banners made from joined shiny letters. Other gadgetry jumps only a little ahead of what’s commercially available now: The bathroom mirror is a computer screen, there are self-driving cars, transparent tablets, albums of animated family photos and luminous trash cans that would be the pride of any kitchen.
And, of course, there is whatever technology that has allowed the creation of Ethan. As is the custom with these technological fairy tales, he seems to have emerged almost magically from the home workshop of his father John Woods (Goran Visnjic), which is quaintly stocked with robot bits and pieces, rather than the corporate-sponsored team effort that one would expect in the nonfictional world.
John sees Ethan not only as his actual son but potentially the first of a line of “humanics,” “an artificial intelligence designed from the very beginning to seek a connection,” taught “right from wrong, good from bad” by life itself and “free to choose their own path.” That humans muck this up all the time, and that there is a pointlessness in building a robot who may reject you and your plans and also go on to lead an unfulfilled life seem to have escaped John. (We already have people for that.) It’s too soon to say whether it has escaped series creator Mickey Fisher as well.
In the immediate context, Ethan is the uncanny third party in and asymmetrical focus of the household of Molly and John, who, sexy shower time notwithstanding, don’t seem particularly happy. “That kid is the closest we’re ever going to get to being parents,” says John, for whom adoption is apparently not an acceptable alternative to infertility.
Molly regards Ethan more critically: “He approximates a behavior that resembles love, but that’s not love.” For the viewer, of course, Ethan, like Hymie and Data before him, is as lifelike as any other character, and we hope no harm comes to him, or from him: He may be having some trouble with that “right from wrong” thing.
It’s hard to know from hour one where the story — which can read like an anthology of themes and motifs from the Spielberg canon, executed with a splash of the director’s own steely sentimentality — is headed. Besides the pregnancy and android dramas, and whatever’s up with mysterious industrialist Mr. Yasumoto (Hiroyuki Sanada), there are hints of world-altering forces an episode or two away.
It is an elegant and well-appointed production, with some nice Cinematic Moments — it’s no surprise that CBS has sent Berry a limousine and not a taxicab to ride in. Still, if you rub the pixie dust from your eyes you might notice edges that don’t quite match and places where story trumps sense.
You may have questions the creators seem to have dismissed. (Why, for instance, would you put a person in a space station for a year on her own, except to establish that she can’t have become pregnant by ordinary means?) Indeed, much of what transpires in the first episode seems engineered merely to bring the main characters into one another’s orbit.
Meanwhile, it’s pretty to look at. And there’s Berry, who does let herself look something less than glamorous, and the welcome-anytime presence of supporting players Camryn Manheim as Molly’s friend and physician; Michael O’Neill as a space-agency bigwig; and Grace Gummer as John’s so-far underused sole colleague. Louis Gossett Jr. will eventually appear as Molly’s father.
I am not yet sold, but I will stick around a while to see what this future holds.
When: 9 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-14-S (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with an advisory for sex)
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