[Sorry about the lateness of this review, folks… I haven’t exactly given you all that much time to mull whether or not you want to see “Defying Gravity” before it premiere ons ABC on Sunday night at 9 p.m. ET. But if ABC wanted a fully considered, timely review of its new space soap opera, maybe premiering it on the heels of 10 days of Comic-Con and the Press Tour wasn’t the best of ideas.]
“Defying Gravity” is created by James Parriott and anybody watching the show’s first couple episodes will greet the news that Parriott comes from a “Grey’s Anatomy” background with a resounding “Well duh.” The series wasn’t produced for ABC — it’s part of Fox Television Studios’ new wave of internationally produced and financed shows — but it’s no wonder that ABC responded to it and gave it a home. “Defying Gravity” could be described as a “‘Grey’s Anatomy’ in Space” or as “‘Grey’s Anatomy’ meets ‘Virtuality'” or as “‘Grey’s Anatomy’ by way of any of a dozen of iconic space films” but no matter where your comparison ends, it’s almost certain to start with McDreamy and the Seattle Grace gang.
Is it necessarily bad for a show to be as shamelessly derivative as “Defying Gravity”? Not necessarily. In this case, it yields a flatness that even the strong cast and solid production values can’t shake. You watch “Defying Gravity” and think, “Wow. This should have been the biggest hit of the 2007 TV season.”
[Full review of “Defying Gravity” after the break…]
“Defying Gravity” focuses on eight astronauts embarking on a multi-year expedition into deep space. The crew is split along gender lines and represents five different countries. They’re also all being filmed for a documentary and for viewing back on Earth. Yes, you can imagine why fans of Ronald D. Moore and Michael Taylor’s well-reviewed, mostly unwatched “Virtuality” pilot are going to feel a bit of resentment if “Defying Gravity” has legs.
But if “Defying Gravity” has a more limited psychological scope than the far-reaching “Virtuality” pilot, it has a far greater narrative scope. In addition to following the nine astronauts on the mission — each of whom has an easily delineated emotional hang-up that’s sure to case in-flight problems in upcoming episode — we’re also treated to life back down on Earth, Mission Control and beyond. Plus, we’re treated to flashbacks on at least three levels, showing the astronauts in their training an on previous missions. The non-linear trickiness is very successful at embellishing the two opening episodes in which, plot-wise, very little happens (a bunch of predictable “reveals” leading up to a wacky doozy of a cliffhanger).
The “Defying Gravity” cast is led by Ron Livingston as Maddux Donner, a mission veteran saddled with a tragic/heroic past and previous romantic entanglements with at least two members of his crew. Donner gets the anchoring voice-over that’s just one of many “Grey’s Anatomy” remnants, portentous nattering that establishes the themes of every episode for viewers who might not be clever enough to follow the intersecting plotlines otherwise. Livingston’s often dry and affectless Midwest drawl has been responsible for most of his comedic success, but it doesn’t really make him a great narrator, especially for a melodramatic series, but it sets up the clearest contrast wit “Grey’s Anatomy”: The masculine voice-over for “Defying Gravity” has a pompous certitude, compared to Meredith’s whiny bewilderment.
Livingston’s Donner is the McDreamy to the Meredith Grey embodied by Laura Harris’ Zoe Barnes. The two are McDreamy and Meredith right down to their drunken barroom meet-cute. Harris, an actress I’ve liked since “Dead Like Me” and “24,” is channeling her inner Ellen Pompeo so thoroughly that I found myself wondering if she previously went through the audition process for that other ABC series that I keep referencing.
The rest of the cast is very strong and diverse, including Malik Yoba, Christina Cox, Florentine Lahme, Paula Garces, Eyal Podell, Dylan Taylor, Andrew Airlie and Zahf Paroo.
Moving forward, the first couple episodes of “Defying Gravity” plant plenty of mysterious serialized elements to bring viewers back. The ground control team knows something disturbing about this mission that they can’t tell the astronauts. One member of the crew is hearing phantom babies on the ship. Is it her psychological hang-up or is something weirder occurring.
As sci-fi goes, this is soft stuff. The nattering about dark matter and the purpose of their mission isn’t belabored and “Defying Gravity” is much more interested in faux spirituality — three or four different flavors of dogma are woven into early episodes — than hard core futurism. The spacecraft bucks recent genre trends by imagining a bright, window-filled interior design more amenable to issues of feng shui than functionality. I kept being struck by how comfortable the stylish the ship’s furniture and interfaces are, as if IKEA won some sort of epic bidding war to give everything on the craft a wacky Swedish name.
The space ship was conceived with an eye toward swooning weightless humping — your first zero gravity sex comes roughly a half-hour into the first episode — and for naked floating, but despite at least forty years of technological advancements, “Defying Gravity” is set in some sort of alternate 2009-as-2052 future. Barring some sort of arrested development in the cultural evolution of fashions or music, it’s not very convincing, which was obviously a production decision. Why guess what songs will sound like or how people will cut their hair in 2052, if you have Laura Harris with her “Women’s Murder Club” ‘do and you can just set a slo-mo montage to a 2009 chick-pop anthem. Occasionally the writers try justifying some of their choices, but mostly “Defying Gravity” is non-chalantly current, which probably means 2052-retro.
As derivative and recycled as it is, “Defying Gravity” isn’t exactly uncommercial. The combination of familiar format and familiar and likable actors is accessible enough that had ABC held onto it and launched it at midseason with a full onslaught of promotion and a cushy timeslot — say, Thursdays at 10 after “Grey’s Anatomy” — I could imagine it being a hit. Instead, ABC is launching it in the dog days of summer on a night that’s more cable-friendly in these warm months. What’s that you say? “Defying Gravity” is premiering in the same time slot that housed “Grey’s Anatomy” when it premiered? Well, maybe that makes sense.