TV Review: ‘Cosmos’

Cosmos TV Review

Lowbrow comedy titan Seth MacFarlane executive producing a reboot of Carl Sagan’s iconic science series “Cosmos” sounds like a bad joke right out of, well, “Family Guy,” but somehow the improbable gambit works. Fox’s bold move to reserve 13 weeks of prime Sunday-night real estate for the kind of docu fare usually associated with PBS — however lavishly produced it may be — speaks volumes about both MacFarlane’s sway and the current “We’ll try anything!” state of the major networks. Whether or not a contemporary “Cosmos” clicks with viewers, it’s an undeniably welcome experiment and refreshing change of pace in the typically disreputable arena of unscripted TV.

Presumably, the biggest challenge here is convincing audiences “Cosmos” isn’t just an eat-your-vegetables proposition, despite an upfront sales pitch promising “the exploration of the universe as revealed by science.” Emphasizing MacFarlane’s involvement could just as easily swing expectations too far in the opposite direction, or scare off those intrigued by the prospect of sophisticated non-fiction entertainment.

In the hopes of exposing the show to as broad of an audience as possible, Fox will simulcast the premiere across 10 networks (including FX and Fox Sports) and enhanced reruns will air weekly on National Geographic. It’s a smart move, since the series does a fine job of selling itself.

The premiere episode nimbly balances information with visual spectacle, forging a middle ground between sci-fi and science fact. One key to walking that line is host Neil deGrasse Tyson, who evokes a sense of scientist-as-rock-star cool and lends authority, recognizability and social media cachet (witness the ruckus he caused on Twitter by pointing out the most egregious scientific errors in “Gravity”).

Another comes from the project’s first-rate production values and fanboy-friendly pedigree. Exec producer and director Brannon Braga has a long history with the “Star Trek” franchise (including co-writing “Star Trek: First Contact”), while “The Matrix” d.p. Bill Pope serves as series cinematographer and co-director; original music is composed by Alan Silvestri of “Back to the Future” and “The Avengers;” and visual effects supervisor Rainer Gombos hails from HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”

All that Hollywood polish shines through in 21st-century updates to classic “Cosmos” touchstones like the Spaceship of the Imagination (from which Tyson now surveys the universe) and the Cosmic Calendar (a memorable way to demonstrate just how minor a role humans play in the history of Earth), without ever cheapening the quality of the information presented. To that end, original “Cosmos” writers Ann Druyan (who also happens to be Sagan’s widow) and Steven Soter return to guide the series into a new era with the same level of integrity that made Sagan’s vision a well-regarded hit in 1980.

Some pundits may view “Cosmos” as a referendum on the ongoing skirmishes between science and religion (cue the inevitable click-bait think piece comparing premiere ratings for “Cosmos” to History’s “The Bible,” which launched almost exactly a year ago). But the opener slyly deflates that divisiveness with a strikingly animated story of 16th century Dominican friar Giordano Bruno, a martyr for scientific curiosity whose hypothesis of a boundless universe was a direct result of his firm religious beliefs.

Not that talking sense to skeptics is the real goal here. A more significant purpose emerges near the end of the premiere installment when Tyson shares a memory of being mentored by Sagan as a young man. Sagan understood that nurturing budding scientists, teaching them what we know and sparking their imaginations about what we still have to learn was the best way to continue the quest for knowledge into the future. In that regard, the true measure of success for the new “Cosmos” may be whether we see yet another revival 30 years from now.

TV Review: 'Cosmos'

(Series; Fox, Sun. March 9, 9 p.m.)

Production

Filmed in New Mexico by Fuzzy Door Productions and Cosmos Studios.

Crew

Executive producers, Ann Druyan, Seth MacFarlane, Mitchell Cannold, Brannon Braga; co-executive producer, Jason Clark; co-producer, Eli Dolleman; animation producer, Kara Vallow; producers, Livia Hanich, Steve Holtzman. Directors, Braga, Bill Pope, Druyan; writers, Druyan, Steven Soter; camera, Pope; production design, Seth Reed; editors, John Duffy, Michael O'Halloran, Eric Lea; music, Alan Silvestri; visual effects supervisor, Rainer Gombos; casting, Sheila Jaffe, Gail Goldberg. 60 MIN.

Cast

Host: Neil deGrasse Tyson.

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  1. C. Roberts says:

    I’m offended on how watered down and off focus this juvenile version of Carl Sagan’s Masterpiece is.
    I was recording it until I viewed the first episode, and after the second I deleted the Timer and all the recorded episodes. This speaks volumes of how sophomoric our science and knowledge have become and how our educational system has been diluted. It is little wonder why we have fallen way behind the rest of the world in our educational excellence. A viewer need only to view the original entire Cosmos series to realize that this production presents as poorly as a junior high science project.

  2. sweetlea says:

    This is so not worth it. We will be sticking with PBS science shows. There is more substance!

  3. Michele says:

    I am fascinated by the emensity of the universe and I really liked the show. I just wasn’t crazy about the animated cartoony parts. I am recording the series though.

  4. i idolized carl sagan- so did my children. he was a genius . how he simplified the cosmos series in a way that audiences could get an understanding of how the cosmos work and how we as humans and everything living thing on earth are all connected. neil degrasse tyson is the perfect person for the new show. he appreciated so much the contributions carl sagan made in the study of the cosmos and honored him with this terrific show, which should generate many new young scientists just like carl sagan did. i am looking forward to seeing all the
    shows. i would much rather watch the cosmos- then some silly sitcom. science was my thing when i was a teenager. my grades in all my science classes were the best-i entered sciences fairs a few times. the understanding of the cosmos is really understanding who we
    are and where we came from.

  5. jgfox says:

    I watched the Original series and am an Astronomy. I greatly enjoyed the show! Wonderful special effects, good scientific content and very poetic and moving.

    From whatever location in the Cosmos Carl is watching from … he should be pleased.

    It truly represents the wonder of the Cosmos in a very gripping and enjoyable manner.

    As to “too many commercials” .. Yes …but its not PPS and we do have Tivo.

  6. Julia says:

    Very enjoyable, but too many advertisements! Neil deGrasse Tyson is THE man. :)

  7. ted says:

    while historically accurate on the evolution of the cosmic theories, it was clear that the religious groups (primarily Christians) were made to look evil. In the early history of the faith, most still thought the earth was flat, let alone that it was not the center of the universe. Maybe could have been presented in a way that wasn’t as brutal given there wasn’t time to convey the general low level of scientific IQ at the time. Priests burning scientists at the stake is a bit dramatic without the context of the times. The history of humanity is quite violent, but that’s a story for another time.

    • JDB says:

      1. Priests burning people at the stake, at that time in history, is Fact not Drama.
      2. In what possible context would burning another human being alive not be evil? (Especially from a group of humans who’s doctrine, in part, claims Love for all)

  8. FYI: The word is “cachet,” not “cache.” May seem like a quibble, but for a respectable publication, an error like that seems unprofessional. This isn’t the first time on Variety that I’ve seen the same mistake.

  9. Jay Birdieboy says:

    Mr. Tyson is an approachable no-nonsense man with a passion for knowledge of the not known, the yet to be known, and the unknowable.
    This man is truly one of this earth’s treasures.
    (Just my opinion)

  10. lucy says:

    it;s fab! thanks fox for taking gambles for the good, instead for for the lowest common denomenator

  11. Amani Jordan says:

    NOTWORTHEEEEEE #pwaise

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