In its first episode, CBS' new science-fiction drama Extant introduces enough mystery for three full seasons. After a 13-month solo mission in space, astronaut Molly Woods (Halle Berry) struggles to readjust to life on earth. She comes home to her engineer husband, John (Goran Visnjic) , and their robot son, Ethan (Pierce Gagnon), with one little problem. She's pregnant. This isn't just an accidental pregnancy. Woods has just returned from over a year in space, alone with zero human interaction.
Even in the pilot, the strengths of the series are considerable. Like many science-fiction stories, the series capitalizes on the nature of fear and its presence in everyday life. But unlike shows like Lost, the fear in Extant isn't completely circumstantial from the beginning. Instead of the setting of the show dictating the suspense, the characters and their desires drive it. For Molly, fears about infertility and how to raise a child are greater than fears about robots that could replace humanity or the mysteries of space.
With pregnancy at the heart of the plot, creator Michael Fisher — who is also producing the show with the help of Steven Spielberg and Brooklyn Weaver — has the opportunity to expand Woods into a dynamic and interesting character. Her pregnancy is perhaps the biggest mystery of the show (and this is a show with plenty of mysteries to go around). But that doesn't make her pregnancy dramatic in and of itself. Molly was unable to get pregnant before her immaculate conception; now she faces the dual problem of not understanding what is going on with her body and having to face a husband who is (probably) not the father of her child.
The pregnancy centered mysteries make Extant one of many television shows making space for strong female characters. Look at Olivia Pope on Scandal and Daenerys Targaryen of Game of Thrones. The silver screen, however, has yet to catch up. Half of the movies this year fail the basic sexism test. That may explain why Berry is making the move into TV. Extant offers the actress a role that recent movies haven't been able to: a strong woman with complex problems. (Extant passes the Bechdel Test in the premiere.) Molly has a job where she is incredibly successful and a life that seems healthy and productive. With several male love interests available already, Molly could certainly fall into the damsel-in-distress trope later on in the series. But the producers have given her enough personality and drive to keep her from being kicked out of the spotlight.
The show succeeds in the scenes where Molly's fears are rooted in real life concerns. When she worries about her son or her job, those fears are believable. When she fights with her husband (despite some questionable acting from Goran Visnjic), her concern for her family is palpable, and it works. Berry is performing at the level that won her an Oscar, making her incredibly believable and sympathetic. As viewers, we want her to succeed. We want her to be in love. We want her to be safe.
But we also want all of the secrets that the series throws out to be neatly tied up. Eventually. See, the entire premise of Extant is built on a secret. CBS's press release regarding the series says Molly's fetus changes humanity forever, which is a hell of a secret to unleash in a press clipping. But there's more. By the end of the premiere, there are no fewer than four major secrets at play, all of which beg to be explained. Molly's son has a secret. The government has a secret. Other astronauts have secrets. Molly has additional secrets.
These secrets can drive the story in a compelling way. At times, though, it seems like the show is keeping secrets to keep secrets. There are plot holes that seem to be created simply to move things along. Molly makes mistakes that are clumsy and out of character, particularly for a woman praised for her intellect and capabilities.
Still, the plot is engaging, the characters are interesting, and the suspense is palpable. The show is already fun to watch, even in pilot form, which is no easy feat. Extant, if done well, could address gracefully the fears surrounding infertility and modern child rearing in a world with rapidly progressing technology . It could balance questions of a robot revolution (because, yes, this series has robots) with our innate fears about the survival of the human race. Berry has the opportunity to play a strong, successful working woman who has character depth and personal ambition .
The issue for Extant, then, will be how it deals with its many mysteries, which already seem like too many for the show to manage with grace.
Mystery creates great television, but too much can drown out great acting and an interesting plot, and that's where Extant is strong. If there's a plan for revealing and wrapping up those secrets, Extant will be great. If not, the show will flounder.
Created by: Mickey Fisher
Starring: Halle Berry, Goran Visnjic, Pierce Gagnon, and Brad Beyer
Debuts: Tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern on CBS
Pilot episode watched for review