Curiosity

Curiosity debuts tonight on Discovery at 8 p.m. Eastern.

Curiosity is like one of those shows that recreates famous Bible stories for children, usually with a modern child as the guide through the tale, only it’s been made for the children of skeptics. The very first episode is all about whether God exists, and the guide through the exploration of that question is Stephen Hawking. If you know anything about Hawking or his views on things, you already know how this is going to end up, but it’s still sort of amazing to see a show more or less give the man who’s likely the foremost scientific mind of our age an hour of TV time to rip apart the underpinnings of religious faith. If you want to believe in God, Hawking all but says, fine, but he’s not going to leave you any sort of room to maneuver. You’re pretty much just believing for the sake of doing so.

It’s kind of a pity, then, that the show around Hawking is kind of a bore. For a man who has such a relentlessly inquisitive mind and a man who builds his case both simply and compellingly by the end of the hour, the first episode of Curiosity plods forward at a snail’s pace, constantly stopping to make sure everybody is caught up on whatever Hawking is saying. Hawking, of course, is very good at coming up with metaphors for the complex processes he’s describing, but the show itself spends too much time on fairly rudimentary stuff, like the history of science’s relationship with religion (including an extended digression into Galileo’s battles with the church), when it could be more freewheeling in its explanation. Without other episodes of Curiosity to examine, I don’t know if this will be the case going forward or if this is just the story Hawking wanted to tell, but a show that could be as interesting as this one shouldn’t settle for the usual TV tricks.

Curiosity is a new series from Discovery Channel’s founder, John Hendricks, and the idea behind the show (which received a five-season, 60-episode pickup earlier this year) is that various celebrities or guest hosts will lead viewers down the road to answers from some pretty basic questions like “Will we find a way to live forever?” or “Are we alone in the universe?” or “Why is sex so fun?” (That last is asked by Maggie Gyllenhaal, coquettishly, in the trailer for the program.) Over the course of each hour, the show will purportedly examine the question from every angle, then pull back for a wider view at the end that hopefully gives the best guess science can offer at an answer to the question.

When I lay it out like that, it sounds like it could be quite a fun show, sort of a RadioLab for television. But Curiosity’s chief failing is RadioLab’s chief strength: Curiosity fails to be significantly wide-ranging, choosing instead to focus so narrowly that it’s constantly repeating itself. Early on in tonight’s episode—where the question is “Was the universe created by God?”—there’s lots and lots of talk about how primitive our ancestors were and how they believed in wolf gods that ate the sun during an eclipse and so on and so forth. And that’s all well and good. But this entire segment—which takes up nearly a third of the episode’s running time—seems like the show vamping for time, examining a subject related to the central question without really making a case for why we should be talking about it. This gives the show the unfortunate feeling of taking forever to get to the point, and it would be easy to check out.

It’d be one thing if the show seemed aimed at adults, but it doesn’t, not really. The story of Galileo’s battles with the church will be familiar to most grown Discovery viewers (or at least I’d hope it would), and the quality of the visual effects, production values, and historical reenactments (sigh) are the sorts of things that should be far more interesting to young scientific minds. (And it’s easy to see kids being sort of ickily entertained by watching a 12th century pope get his body crushed by a collapsing roof.) And yet by the time Hawking is discussing whether or not time existed before the Big Bang, the show has leapt right past the goofy reenactments to questions at the heart of quantum mechanics. If the episode were doing the thing where it gradually increases the learning curve, so things get more and more complex, that’d be one thing. But the episode starts as a nice, gentle climb, then abruptly runs into a wall.

Still, there’s a core of a very good show here, and if Discovery is smart about working through the various issues the first episode has, this could be must-watch television. Plus, the fact that every episode will be tackling a different subject with a different host could make things that much more varied and interesting, to the point where individual episodes could prove to be wildly varying in quality, based on whomever’s in front of the camera and behind it. In a way, this could end up being something like Discovery’s version of that ESPN series 30 For 30, and though the network is giving the show something of a promotional push, it’s clear that it’s mostly been put on the air as a kind of passion project, something that everybody who works at Discovery can point at and say, “We’re proud of that.” And, really, even though this episode doesn’t work as well as it should, it’s still something that blatantly tries to educate, with surprisingly few frills. And that’s rare on TV today.

Plus, it’s one of the few shows out there to take a genuinely agnostic view of the universe. Hawking is seriously going to examine the evidence in favor of the existence of God, then bluntly deliver the results to us. Outside of his occasional feints toward, “Everyone is free to believe whatever they want,” as well, he’s unapologetic in the fact that he finds nothing to suggest that we need attribute the creation of the universe to God. (That’s a spoiler, I guess, but if you know anything about Hawking, it shouldn’t be.) TV is a medium that’s so relentlessly devoted to making everybody feel like they’re at home and accounted for that it’s rare to see something this bracing. And for all of its many faults, that sets Curiosity apart. Any time TV tackles a question and delivers an answer that’s unequivocally straightforward and direct, that’s worth being excited about.

Stray observations:

  • I don’t know if this is the program itself doing this or just the screener I was sent, but it’s worth pointing out. Hawking supposedly narrates the whole program, but at various, awkward times, his computerized voice will be replaced by a more mellifluous British narrator. It’s possible that this is just a screener issue—and I sort of think it might be, since the British guy would take over mid-sentence sometimes—and I hope it is. It’d be ridiculous to replace Hawking on the soundtrack. Everybody knows what he sounds like. May as well just go with it.
  • Discovery will apparently be sending out more episodes, so I'll take a look at those. If they're better, I'll do a follow-up post to this one.

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