Back in 1980, the only thing Cosmos needed to ignite the imaginations of a generation of youngsters was scientist/showman Carl Sagan standing front and center in the frame explaining the vast mysteries of our world and the universe that lies beyond. It's a sign of how much we've devolved as a viewing public -- or more charitably, the lack of faith network executives have in us -- that the new Cosmos, now sporting the grandiose subtitle A Spacetime Odyssey instead of the more modest A Personal Voyage, can't simply turn the camera on new host and Sagan's heir apparent, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and let him geek out about the awesomeness of outer space and stuff. Instead, the series surrounds him with feature-film level special effects, animated recreations of major historical events and a prime Sunday night berth on Fox that follows the youth-oriented double bill of The Simpsons and Family Guy, the long-running cartoon blockbuster from Cosmos's exec producer, Seth MacFarlane, apparently looking to upend his public image as a smug, intellectually-challenged playboy who sang about boobs on the Oscars.
So yes, all the bling that's being piled on top of Cosmos 2.0 feels a little egregious. At the same time though, when was the last time a major national network lavished this much time, energy and money on launching a freakin' science (not science-fiction) series? It may just be an effort to keep their star pupil happy, but Fox is going all-in on the series in a way that's really admirable, launching last night's splashy premiere hour across ten networks, including FX, FXX and Fox Life and the National Geographic Channel. And all that money is there on the screen; the Cosmos pilot boasts more deep space F/X than Star Trek: Into Darkness, kicking off with Tyson boarding his version of Sagan's "Ship of the Imagination" (which, to my eyes anyway, resembled the interstellar vessel from Flight of the Navigator) and taking off for a tour of the Milky Way galaxy, venturing as far as Pluto and turning back the clock all the way to the Big Bang.
I'm happy to report that there's a fair amount of substance to accompany the series' flashy style. In fact, there's almost too much for a single episode. Well-aware that they may only have one shot at hooking an audience for this 13-episode tryout, the writers try to cram as many Big Ideas as possible into their initial hour, merrily skipping around between such subjects as the "Cosmic Calendar" (a way of condensing the birth and growth of our universe into a single year), the life of Giordano Bruno (a 16th century friar who built on Copernicus's heliocentric model of the solar system and was punished for his beliefs) and Tyson's own personal history with Sagan (he first met the original Cosmos host at age 17 and that encounter helped encourage him to pursue a career in astrophysics) in between sweeping shots of the galaxy and majestic pronouncements like "We are all made of star stuff."
At times, the episode threatens to feel more like an extended trailer for what Cosmos will eventually be about instead of a focused lesson. It's no accident that the best part of the hour is the "Cosmic Calendar" sequence, where Tyson gets the chance to really zero in on a specific subject and explain it in full. (The Bruno material is interesting too, although I'm not entirely sold on the comic-book style animation used in these reenactments. Still, it's better than novice actors stiffly standing around in period dress like the film strips of my youth.) Upcoming installments apparently will cover branching subjects that are grouped under a central area of study, which should give the series a rigor this pilot lacks somewhat.
That approach should also play to Tyson's strengths as a great communicator of scientific ideas and theories. The host hasn't just been influenced by Sagan's ideas about the universe -- he also has inherited his enviable ability to break complex concepts down into digestible elements for a mass audience without simplifying their value as brain food. If you're intimidated by the prospect of listening to a scientist lecture at you every Sunday, don't be -- Tyson is genuine TV star, as comfortable in his element as, say, Jon Stewart is over on The Daily Show. He's frequently just as funny as Stewart is as well, and that warm sense of humor immediately puts you at ease and encourages you to open your ears and your mind to his lesson plan. In a series filled with kid-friendly eye candy, Tyson emerges as its most effective special effect.
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