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.