Halle Berry’s new tv show Extant premiered on CBS last night, and the pilot for the sci-fi series produced by Steven Spielberg was weirdly both better than I expected and not quite as good as I had hoped. That is to say, it didn’t feel like a show — like CBS’ Under the Dome — that exhausted its premise in the pilot alone, but then again, there were some troubling signs of generic sci-fi tropes and a tone, perhaps, that felt a little too sterile.
That said, it’s definitely an intriguing show, and Halle Berry is very good in it. The pilot throws just enough out there to keep us intrigued, but not so much as to confuse us.
In the series, Berry plays Molly Watts, an astronaut who just returned from a 13-month solo mission in space only to discover that she’s pregnant. That, of course, is impossible for two reasons: Molly had no human contact while in space, and Molly is also infertile. In fact, it’s the second issue that led Molly’s husband John (Goran Visnjic, “ER”) to invent an android son named Ethan, who could be the next step in humanity’s evolution. Basically, Ethan is a robot that looks, develops, grows, and acts just like any other kid. The catch? He also has a serious demon-spawn vibe. He’s like a little robot Damien. Doubly concerning is that John wants to develop these things and produce them on a mass scale. Sh*tty, evil little children is exactly what the planet needs more of.
The pilot — which was written by first-timer Mickey Fisher, whose script was plucked by Spielberg from a screenwriting contest — is actually incredibly well done. It’s atmospheric and creepy, and looks very much like a lower-budget network show you’d expect from Spielberg (I liked a few of the futuristic flourishes, too, like the trash can, though I don’t understand it). There’s plenty of intrigue built into the premise, too, with the pregnancy, Android Damien, and another guy thought to be dead who is lurking around in the background trying to protect Molly. From what? We don’t know. But it seems that the Android and Molly’s space impregnation may be related.
I’m assuming that Spielberg wouldn’t have selected the screenplay based on the premise alone, unless he also knew there was a decent payoff at the end of the series. There are 10 episodes, and if Fargo can turn a murder investigation into ten hours of brilliant television, there’s no reason to think that CBS and Spielberg can’t extract 10 episodes out of a premise very rich in potential like the one in Extant. There are some smart concepts, there is some fun conspiracy theory potential, and some smart man vs. machinary themes coursing through the show.
If there’s one catch, however, it’s that — even with Berry’s strong performance — the characters themselves don’t seem all that compelling. Through one episode, they seem kind of bland, and the tone feels a little too sterile, even for a sci-fi conspiracy thriller. Hopefully, subsequent episodes will bring in some warmth, humor, levity, or anything to give Molly and John’s struggling marriage some depth. That, right now, is the ingredient that’s keeping Extant from a show you might want to seek out to a show you really need to see. For now, I’d remain cautious and maybe even wait a few episodes to see if the premise holds up before giving it a shot on CBS.
Meanwhile, if you are watching the series, and you like it, there’s good news in that ratings for the series were the highest yet for a summer premiere in 2014, with around 9.6 million viewers. However, that’s several million less than what Under the Dome debuted with last year.