July 10, 2014

THE SKED Series Premiere Review: “Extant”


EXTANT:  Wednesday 9PM on CBS – If Nothing Else Is On…

CBS’s EXTANT has been at the center of a Hollywood tentpole-sized marketing campaign for months, so it’s a bit disappointing to find that the show itself is just a moderately compelling hodgepodge of sci-fi motifs, without even the ambitious scale of the network’s Under the Dome (notwithstanding that show’s own flaws).  There’s the otherworldly pregnancy, the extraordinary yet sinister robot, the conspiracy between quasi-governmental and corporate forces–Extant, in a way that’s not unfitting for its themes, feels like it was put together in a TV programming test tube.  That in itself isn’t a deadly flaw–you could say the same of Orphan Black, more or less–but it takes Orphan‘s kind of inspiration and some wild inventiveness to transcend those cliches, and the pilot of Extant doesn’t suggest a large supply of those.

The pilot, written by series creator Mickey Fisher (although the showrunner going forward is network procedural vet Greg Walker) and directed by Allen Coulter, presents us with astronaut Molly Woods (Halle Berry, in a TV series debut that would have been more exciting before people like Matthew McConaughey and Kevin Spacey started making such moves routine), who returns to Earth from a solo 13-month space voyage to the shocking news that she’s somehow pregnant.  That’s supposed to be impossible, both for the obvious reason and because she’d previously been told she was infertile, and it stems from an inexplicable event that occurred during her trip, a 13-hour visitation from a figure who appeared to be the ghost (or something) of her dead first husband, although speaking and acting with such oddness that it’s pretty clear he/it was an alien or some other being using that form for the sake of convenience.  Molly had erased all the records of what happened, but Extant doesn’t make much effort to hide the fact that the show’s private-sector version of NASA, along with a mysterious Japanese industrialist (is there any other kind?), have been conducting experiments on their unsuspecting astronauts, including one of Molly’s predecessors who supposedly committed suicide (but is still alive, so he can pay Molly doleful visits and warn her to “Trust no one,” always good advice in a story like this).

Meanwhile, Molly’s husband John (Goran Visnjic) is a robotics genius who’s created Ethan (Pierce Gagnon), a robot child right out of Executive Producer Steven Spielberg’s (and, of course, Stanley Kubrick’s) A.I.  John believes strongly that robots should be brought up as human beings, and that doing so will imbue them with morals and ethics that will prevent them from becoming immortal tyrants who will take over the world.  He believes this, apparently, because he’s never heard of Hitler or other human children who didn’t turn out so well despite relatively normal upbringing (and who managed unbelievable destruction even without super-strength).  A lot of Extant‘s inherent falsity is embedded in this plot.  For one thing, John’s creation can’t really grow up like humans because, unless John really is a genius, they can’t “grow up” at all–they’ll be 10 years old or whatever forever, which will make their experience as “children” inhuman ones.  For another, although the pilot makes a major point out of John absolutely refusing to have any plan for terminating a robot who goes bad, it’s made clear that Ethan needs his batteries changed and recharged, so if he really became a monster, eventually his AAs would run down.  For now, Ethan is well-behaved, but he has a temper, and may have killed a bird out of pique.

Extant is very old-fashioned sci-fi, and as such it’s a bit of a novelty, since even Syfy doesn’t feature these kinds of stories anymore.  Produced, like Dome, as a venture co-financed with Amazon (which gets early streaming rights), it has modest production values, and most of the cast budget seems to have gone to Berry; Visnjic and Camryn Manheim as Molly’s friend and doctor are sturdy enough in support, and Michael O’Neill turns up as the assistant head of the show’s semi-NASA, but the cast is mostly bland, and Berry’s performance, while accomplished, isn’t very different from the work she’s done in recent B-movies like The Call and New Year’s Eve.  She relies mostly on her movie star charisma, rather than making any real attempt to stretch.

CBS, of course, had a surprise triumph last summer with Dome (although that’s fading fast), and the network has done everything in its power to make Extant the same kind of ratings event.  Perhaps it will work, but at the moment, Extant feels less adventurous than the kind of genre drama that can be found on cable most nights of the week.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."