Here’s the tl;dr right at the top: I like what I’m seeing of Extant, but there’s still a bit of emptiness at its center.
“Extinct” is a decent episode of a genre show—mostly because it keeps the story moving at a fast clip without any of the drawn-out wallowing that kills mysteries. Those of you who were with me for Helix—a show I had high hopes about at first—may recall that my biggest issue with it was that the mysteries didn’t evolve into something else quickly enough to hold my attention. Extant does not have that problem. Even in just the first act of “Extinct” it introduces an idea that the pilot did not even hint at—that Molly would see visions of her dead husband Marcus even when she was back on Earth. And it has not wasted time with bringing Harmon out of the shadows and into the story, giving us a flashback to his own mission, which was punctuated by an unsettling vision of his mother.
With a new show, it usually takes just a few minutes to get a sense of what kind of show it’s trying to be; but it takes a few whole episodes of what kind of show it actually is. I’m now waiting for Extant to reveal itself. We know a few things right now:
- Halle Berry is an arresting actress who might think she’s in a different show entirely
- All of the other performances are kind of depressingly broad (they don’t have to be, but they’re not written with much complexity)
- Extant is fond of genre tropes, whether those are horror tropes (creepy baby! Symbols etched into the walls!) or sci-fi tropes (… creepy (alien) baby! (Alien) symbols etched into the walls!)
- Extant wants to think it is creating a conversation around whether or not robot people are scary or exciting (and who knows, maybe the show is succeeding, but either way, girl, it is trying)
- There’s a kind of retro sci-fi look to the show—grays, neutrals, silvers. That’s fine, but it looks dated—if we’ve learned anything from the Internet, it’s that more technology means a whole lot more color.
- Halle Berry can balance eggs on their ends like some kind of crazy magician
On the whole, this gives us a good foundation for moving forward. As a purely mechanical construct, Extant has everything it needs—a cool premise and the gumption to follow through with it, with either lab experiments delivered from on high or aliens that travel through solar flares or Mr. Yasumoto using Molly’s baby to lengthen his life somehow (how?? I don’t know, science!!).
What it does not have, right now, is warmth. I get it—the future of Extant is cold and lonely and depressing, populated by sterile robot children who stare at the evolution displays in museums without a trace of irony whatsoever. (Bots gotta bot.) It’s a little dead inside, just like its robot child—looks pretty, but is missing a beating heart. That heart should be Berry’s Molly, but somehow, whatever internal passion drives her performance is not able to inspire or captivate the rest of the cast.
For example, in “Extinct”: Molly shares breakfast with her husband John and Ethan, before hanging out with Camyrn Manheim in the museum and then getting slightly kidnapped by her old coworker Harmon. In the course of this arc there are four different one-on-one conversations: Molly with her best friend Sam; Molly with Ethan; Molly with her husband; Molly with Harmon, even Molly with Grace Gummer, who plays robot nanny Julie. (Not a Robot Nanny but a Nanny To Robots. Okay.) And yet, somehow, none feel particularly vital. To put it bluntly, they all feel like they’re acting.
This very well could be on Halle Berry, who was clearly cast to be the emotional anchor of the series, but so far isn’t totally selling it. She is selling it some. I feel like I really need to make that clear. But it’s not connecting to the other actors. Ron Butterfield’s conversation with Yasumoto was more memorable than hers with John; even John’s conversation with creepy-sexy Ms. Dodd had more bite to it than the married couple’s sex in the shower. And yet I wonder if those moments are just random sparks—because plenty more moments are oddly empty, like Sam’s conversation with Butterfield and Yasumoto’s conversation with Ms. Dodd. (I realize that I am referring to Michael O’Neill as Ron Butterfield because that is what I have called him since The West Wing. He has a real name in Extant, and it is Alan Sparks, but I am probably just going to keep calling him Ron Butterfield. Sorry.)
One of the many mysteries to directing is coaxing strong performances out of actors; what you’d want here is a director who knows how to do character drama. Someone who’s worked on episodes of Masters Of Sex or films like Blue Valentine. Instead tonight’s director is Matt Earl Beesley, who’s worked on Revenge, CSI, and, you guessed it, Hostages. I don’t blame Beesley—he’s doing what he’s told, which is getting through an episode or two of a show at CBS. But it’s not hard to believe that direction has a role to play in how anodyne the show feels so far. Either it has to make this sterility work, or it needs to course-correct. Mystery is important to a show’s success, but interpersonal relationships have to carry the story.
- …and other maxims, from Sonia Saraiya.
- Let’s all play laser-helix space-Jenga!
- From my notes: “So Robot Kid is mad at her? What is their relationship? Is robot baby resentful like regular baby?”
- Did you notice that when John and Julia hang out at their office in Yasumoto tower, they just walk around in a circle for a long time? To be fair, it’s a kind of fancy, centrally located circle. But... yeah. The circle-walk-and-talk. Welcome.
- I was truly touched at how nice and understanding the museum robot was. But then again: Museum robots would be.
- I was also touched that John would try to reheat a soufflé for his lady wife. Because that is impossible.
- More from my notes: “Oh shit! Alien guy Marcus is hanging out! THE FUCK IS THAT SHIT ON HER WOMB”
- “I’m sorry, Molly. I’ve been asked to terminate this session.” #wordstohearbeforeyoudie
- Sonia’s speculation corner: Okay, I think I have nothing. They brought everything to the actual text! So they were experimented upon. But what does this have to do with Yasumoto’s immortality project? How long before Camryn Manheim is either killed or betrays Molly? How long before Harmon is killed? How long before Butterfield is killed? How long before Grace and John sleep together and have more robot babies???
- Robot kids spaceship drawing was more sweet than sinister. Poor kid is contemplating what a downer it would be to exterminate the human race.
- And lastly, from my notes: “Butterfield was lying, right? THE MACHINES MEAN WELL”