At this stage of his career, Seth MacFarlane is the proverbial 800 lb. gorilla at the FOX network. What kind of shows does he make, and where do they go? Given how valuable “Family Guy” is to the company bottom line (and how much money even something like “American Dad” has generated), anywhere he wants them.
This season, we've already seen MacFarlane use his powers for evil, with the creation of “Dads,” a hacky, lazily racist sitcom wasting a bunch of talented actors. Without MacFarlane attached, its doubtful FOX even picks the thing up. Instead, it got on the air, and its ratings were ultimately just decent enough that, once you factor in MacFarlane's influence, it'll likely be back for another season.
But as I've talked about a lot, there are two warring creative impulses inside MacFarlane (you got to see a little of both when he hosted the Oscars last year), and there's a very palpable love of vintage, classy Hollywood fare mixed in with the cruder jokes that have made him a very wealthy man. And so it's nice to see that in the same season that MacFarlane unleashed “Dads” on us, he's also using his powers for good, backing a lavish and wonderful revival of “Cosmos,” the classic '80s PBS science series hosted by Carl Sagan.
The new version is hosted by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Sagan's spiritual heir when it comes to communicating difficult scientific concepts to the public in an understandable, infectiously joyful way, and it's a top-shelf production all the way. The soaring score is by Alan Silvestri, who composed the themes to “Back to the Future” and “The Avengers,” among many other films. The cinematography is by Bill Pope, who shot “The Matrix,” and the special effects are dazzling. The model work on the original “Cosmos” was groundbreaking for its day, but it looks like cave paintings compared to the computer effects that seamlessly place Tyson on a spaceship touring the edge of the known universe, or on prehistoric Earth as the dinosaurs' least-favorite asteroid comes a calling.
The new series is, like the original, a wild tour of time and space meant to ignite a fire of scientific passion in viewers of any age. (I can attest to the spell it cast over my daughter, who does not ordinarily have that expression on her face for anything that doesn't begin with the Pixar logo.) The debut episode (it will air Sundays at 9, bumping “Family Guy” to 8:30 for a bit) begins with Tyson boarding his “ship of the imagination” (a sleek, shimmering wonder) to tour the universe and explain each line of our planet's “cosmic address.” We then jump to a touching animated sequence detailing the life of Giordano Bruno, a monk who posited the Earth revolved around the sun – and was deeply punished for expressing that theory – well before Galileo did the same. And finally, he compresses the history of the entire universe from the Big Bang to today into a 12-month “cosmic calendar,” which neatly illustrates how little time humans have been around in the grand scheme of things, and yet how much we've accomplished in that time.
It's a show that stands entirely on its own while never forgetting the series that inspired it. Tyson begins the series on the same cliff that Sagan stood on at the start of his “Cosmos,” and the new show's premiere concludes with a touching personal story about the 17-year-old Tyson getting to meet his scientific idol. It's a show about cold science that has plenty of room for warm emotion – and, in the Giordano Bruno segment, for faith – and is far more sincere and effective than you might have expected when you heard MacFarlane was the one pushing for the revival.
The original “Cosmos” was, for a decade, the most-watched show in PBS history. We're a much more splintered culture than we were in 1980, so it's hard to imagine this one having that kind of impact. But if MacFarlane's name and the FOX marketing muscle that goes with it can bring some open eyes and minds to the project, then the next season of “Dads” becomes a necessary evil to allow for something this good, in every sense.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org