For years, the broadcast networks have programmed the summer months much like leftovers, and no, I’m not talking about the tremendous new HBO series. They empty their shelves, airing all the surplus scraps they find—reality shows, unaired episodes from long-ago-canceled series, cheap imports from Canada and any other rejected programming from the previous season—as they count the days until September rolls around and the shows they actually care about return.
But last year, CBS decided to stop neglecting summer programming and rolled out Stephen King and Steven Spielberg’s Under the Dome. Visually arresting (even Hannibal would have been proud of that bisected cow) and ambitious—at least initially, until the story went stagnant—Dome became a huge hit and prompted CBS to double down this summer with a second Spielberg-produced “event series,” Extant. The Halle Berry sci-fi drama, which premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET/PT, is a substantial upgrade over Dome, far more gripping and promising than its predecessor has ever been.
The series begins as “private sector” astronaut Molly Watts (Halle Berry) returns home following a 13-month-long solo space voyage. She’s already struggling to fit back in with her family, when her doctor (Camryn Manheim) drops a bombshell: Watts is pregnant. It’s a particularly shocking turn of events for Molly, who had unsuccessfully tried to conceive for years with her current roboticist husband, John (Goran Visnjic), and still mourns the death of her first son, Marcus. Meanwhile, her reunion with her other son, Ethan (Pierce Gagnon, a revelation as Cid in Looper), an android created by John “to seek human connection,” has been strained, which may or may not be related to the seriously creepy vibes that Ethan gives off.
At work, there’s lots of ominous talk about the fate of her late colleague, Harmon Kryger, whose strange experience on his space mission seems to parallel Molly’s. Plus there’s a mysterious magnate, Hideki Yasumoto (Hiroyuki Sanada), as well as Molly’s boss, played by Michael O’Neill—and when has that actor ever portrayed someone who doesn’t have a secret, sinister agenda?
Created by newbie writer Mickey Fisher (he entered a pilot screenwriting contest, which ultimately landed him on Spielberg’s radar), Extant combines several renowned films—2001: A Space Odyssey, Rosemary’s Baby, Spielberg’s own A.I. and Gravity (after all, it centers around a Best Actress Oscar winner on her own in space)—without managing to seem derivative. It’s not all smooth sailing—a shadowy figure who keeps trying to make contact with Molly could have easily picked methods less likely to drive her into bouts of hysteria, and the conspiracies are already stacked perilously high in just the first episode—but surprisingly, Fisher pulls it off.
The show’s name, Extant, means “still in existence; surviving”—the opposite of extinct. The word could also refer to Berry’s career, which seemed to have flatlined in recent years, outside of the X-Men franchise. Extant can only thrive if Berry does, and so far the actress, making her first TV series appearance since the short-lived 1989 Who’s the Boss? spinoff Living Dolls, delivers in what is a difficult, enigmatic role. Berry has never deployed her talents consistently during her career, but acquits herself quite admirably here. While at first, she seems to be frustratingly underplaying Molly’s reaction to the pregnancy news, it turns out that there’s a method to her stillness. You see, Molly also knows things—some of which unfold in flashbacks—with many more revelations likely to come in future episodes. Until they do, Berry utilizes her star quality to keep us riveted and awaiting whatever twist comes next. And she makes the most of her standout scene in the premiere, in which she silently and captivatingly unpacks several years of emotional baggage.
Aside from Berry, the other actors haven’t yet been given enough to do aside from keeping a myriad of secrets. I’m confident that Manheim will be able to handle whatever is thrown her way, but I’m more skeptical about Visnjic, who aside from occasional moments during his ER run has never been particularly compelling. But Gagnon’s layered work as potential rogue robot Ethan is already creeping the hell out of me, and I eagerly await what’s in store for him down the road.
Director Allen Coulter (The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire) also manages to hold his own (no small feat, given that one can’t help thinking of Gravity’s bravura during each space scene), and while he doesn’t come up with anything as iconic as Dome’s halved cow, he creates a few striking, haunting images of his own, including a scene involving a single tear. Kudos also go out to the set designers, who have concocted some nifty futuristic touches, particularly in the next generation of trash disposal (which, sadly, still requires someone to cart the refuse outside).
The best thing that can be said about Extant is that it doesn’t feel like a stock CBS drama—it’s not a procedural and doesn’t fetishize the torture and murder of women. Instead, Extant is laying some intriguing groundwork and doesn’t shy away from difficult conversations about humanity and artificial intelligence, particularly in John’s heated debate with a board that is considering financing his android work. Aside from The Good Wife, these aren’t the kinds of substantive discussions and characters that one usually finds on the Eye Network.
But my recommendation comes with a spaceship-sized caveat: based on the premiere episode, it seems apparent that Extant would work best as a contained miniseries (sorry, limited series), not an ongoing one. Alas, CBS Entertainment chairman Nina Tassler has already said that if Extant is a hit like Dome, it will return next year. And that’s a shame. Extant raises so many fascinating questions, and if it becomes a long-running series, it will be forced to delay giving answers for as long as possible. Perhaps Mickey Fisher will be able to ingeniously thread that space needle, but history says otherwise. Of Extant’s many mysteries, how the show can sustain itself over the long haul is by far its biggest—and most inauspicious.
But that’s a dilemma for down the line. For now, I’m happily sticking with Extant. And lest you think I’m grading on a curve during the summer months, this more than holds its own with the new drama pilots on tap for fall as well. My long-term reservations aside, I applaud CBS for proving, at least for now, that quality broadcast television can indeed be extant during the summer months.