CBS‘ Extant Re-Entry TV Show Review. Extant: Season 1, Episode 1: ‘Re-Entry’ attempted to set the tone for what could very well be a fairly ambitious undertaking. I was left, however, not entirely sure what that tone is supposed to be. Like any good pilot, Extant put out a number of threads, meant to give viewers at least a few reasons to look forward to future developments; but there was a familiarity to many of these that evoked the image of a brain-stormer dart game session, out of the creative team’s bullpen.
Remember Kubrick‘s/ Spielberg‘s A.I.? Haley Joel Osment was meant to bring a wide-eyed innocence to the Oliver Twist android, but only managed to up the creepiness factor of the whole affair? Well, Extant isn’t quite like that.
The first real carrot that the series dangles came in the form of a child android, Ethan (Pierce Gagnon), serving as a center for larger themes like the nature of Human emotion/ connection/ interaction, the rights of the intelligently soulless, and the ever popular fear of the robot-apocalypse. A decent amount of material to get through at least one season (for one character, anyway), but the pilot seemed willing to set all those aside in order to focus the viewer’s attention on one stark, simplistic question: whether this android will be an agent of hope or fear. Too much emphasis was placed on making Ethan seem creepily unbalanced & erratic. Frankly, the creepy kid, who may have the inside track on even more creepiness-in-progress, has been done to death (particularly after The Sixth Sense – thank you, Haley Joel). The Walking Dead took a much subtler, slow-boil approach to the subject, during its fourth season; but for Extant‘s potential cyber psycho, the introduction had him running hot & cold. As an impressionable child (read: programmable), however, there is plenty of room left for growth. Remember those creepy kids from that Nic Cage film, Knowing? Well… well, I probably lost you at Nic Cage….
Okay, remember The Astronaut’s Wife, where guy astronaut comes back from mission, not altogether there, and his wife has to contend with how that mission changed him – with the fate of the World at stake? Well, Extant isn’t all the way there, either (knock on wood).
The central plot to Extant revolves around the experience of Molly Woods (Halle Berry), during a 13 month solo space mission, and the fallout that ensues after her return to Earth, her workplace, and her family. The pilot attempted to make a subtly gradual transition, from the natural difficulty in her re-adjustment to full on mystery/ conspiracy, but subtlety may not prove to be Extant‘s strong point. The fact that I couldn’t tell whether the recounting of her space encounter came in the form of real-time memory, or a series of flashbacks for the viewer’s benefit, didn’t help. Remember that whole “alien assuming a friendly face to make contact with” detail, from the film Contact? Well, I’m still mad at that film, over its less sensible plot points, so maybe I brought it up for the wrong reasons….
There were other memories that came to mind. One show, still considered synonymous with the conspiracy theme, once warned us to “Trust No One;” Extant‘s pilot settled for “don’t trust anybody.” Almost Human‘s corpse is still fairly warm, where keeping Asimov‘s themes alive are concerned. Hiroyuki Sanada, having served as both an immortal agent of Jacob (Lost), and an immortal agent of ILARIA (Helix), showed up to play the artificially preserved face of Extant‘s corporate conspiracy contingent. Privatized space program, plus shaky employee with possible key to… something (“wonderful?”), plus a Japanese corporate head on a seeming immortality kick, could add up to another Weyland-Yutani Corp. in the making; but such a derivative construct might be more complimentary than Extant‘s ambitions may actually warrant.
There were also some classic pet peeve moments. Early on, Molly found a shadowy figure before her, but allowed herself to be distracted by a disturbance behind her, thus leaving said figure free to disappear. The moral of such encounters remaining “never take your eyes off the apparition,” but maybe she was expecting doors number two & three to open. Once it became clear that her employers had a special interest in her space mission, after a previous failure, I imagine it would not have been too hard for them to install a mirror/ clone drive, to keep a record of events not subject to erasure. The erasure, itself (never mind whether such an option would actually be available to her), made sense: she wanted to get back to her family, and footage of her doing a Mime solo would have likely resulted in more “under supervision” time, upon her return. That left the matter of her phantom visitor. It’s been suggested that trying too hard to put us at ease may be part of our larger aversion to clowns. I’d apply that to the dead-eyed smiling faces of the dearly departed, asking for really big favors. In this case, it was her dearly departed first husband, Marcus (Sergio Harford). The fact that her current husband, John (Goran Visnjic), at one point, took the time to express gratitude at Marcus’ passing – for reassuring effect – made the whole affair seem that much more macabre. The ethical & moral guidance of the resident android’s future, folks – for the sake of Human/ A.I. relations, Ethan was being raised as their son. As for the future of mecha mankind? Never mind that Extant‘s setting seemed sanitized beyond all recognition, or reason (Star Trek had an explanation for its terrestrial utopia), there was the most cliched aspect to what may be Extant‘s biggest subject matter: man’s extinction.
Okay, forget I said “extinction” for the time being, and consider that the pilot touched on the subject of artificial self-awareness leading to possible robot-apocalypse. It’s really a conceit. Would post-singularity, self-producing machines really care about us enough to bother wiping us out? Wouldn’t being self-aware mean they would at least be aware of our well documented fear of their being self-aware; thus resulting in them keeping us unaware of their becoming self-aware? There are often two sides to Human hubris: a Messiah/ hero complex, and a martyr/ persecution complex – both of which serving to remind us how special we are. If Extant turns out to be half as ambitious as I think it is, it may yet find itself tethered to the framework of that basic conceit.
So what, you ask? Viewers like to feel important – even if it’s just important enough to be lied to, by fictional authorities, or subject to extinction/ preservation by higher powers. The problem would be in just how familiar these themes have long since been. Call me the lonely voice in the room, but I don’t want the next X-Files, a more accessible 2001, or something to wash away the taste of The Day the Earth Stood Still remake. I want something new, that could stand beside them (the first two; I’ll settle for pretending the Keanu remake didn’t happen).
Familiar or not, Extant‘s pilot did provide enough material to imbue the series with a certain potential. Even though heavy-handed, in some of its delivery, the real test for the series will be in how it hits the ground running, after a pitch that placed more emphasis on promise than any possible follow through.
So remember how shows like Almost Human & Quantum Leap made fairly large promises, but couldn’t/ wouldn’t live up to them? Yeah, I’m trying not to dwell on those memories….