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‘Extant’ Season 2: Showrunners Talk New Direction, Cast Changes

It’s not unusual for a show to make tweaks between seasons, but CBS’ summer sci-fi series “Extant” underwent an extreme makeover for Wednesday’s second season premiere.

Only three of last season’s seven full-time regulars are still with the show (leading lady Halle Berry as astronaut Molly Woods, Pierce Gagnon as her robo-son, Ethan, and Grace Gummer as partially robotic scientist Julie Gelineau), while season one’s male lead, Goran Visnjic, has been replaced by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Entire subplots have been dropped, and the show’s perspective is shifting away from the realm of science, to a pulpier, more action-driven, vibe.

There’s no doubt many of these changes are the result of underwhelming ratings — after bowing to 9.6 million viewers and a 1.6 rating in the 18-49 demo, the first season averaged 6.2 million viewers and a 1.1 in 18-49.

They’re also the vision of new showrunners Elizabeth Kruger and Craig Shapiro (“Necessary Roughness”), who now steer the ship along with series creator Mickey Fisher. All three EPs are open in hoping their changes will attract a larger audience to the show, which has completed production on all 13 episodes for season two. Variety spoke with the trio about the creative reboot.

What expectations do you hope audiences will have for the season after watching the premiere?
Mickey Fisher: We drop right into the middle of Molly’s story and then leap back. I hope audiences pick up that this is a mystery in high gear. In the first season, it took time to lay the foundation and build the story and the characters. I felt like in the (season two premiere) we were able to hit the ground running and reestablish Molly in a new light.
Craig Shapiro: Last season explored Molly as a scientist and astronaut and mom. This season is much more Molly as a warrior.
Elizabeth Kruger: Molly’s gone rogue.
CS: The fate of the human race hangs in the balance and she’s the focal point. We’re counting on her.

Was it a goal for season two to get Molly more involved in the action on a physical level?
CS:
It’s not just about the physical moments, it’s more about an attitude for her. Her entire energy is being transformed in the first few episodes, and for lack of a better word it’s much more badass than last season.

We know Goran Visnjic is no longer a series regular. Does that mean John is definitely dead?
EK:
I would say, never assume anything.
MF: But exactly what happened to him is a major part of the mystery that goes through the spine of the season. It doesn’t just go away. It informs everything that happens. There will be answers, but it’s going to take a little while to get to the bottom of it.
EK: And there will be blood.

Julie (Grace Gummer) appears to have taken a turn toward the dark side. Should the audience see her as a villain now?
EK:
Let’s just say she’s not a mustache-twirling villain. She’s a misguided young woman, who is going to probably get her ass handed to her at some point.
MF: Julie is handed the reins of the Humanitics program and she has a lot of ambition and great intentions, but like Liz said she’s misguided and is going to make a lot of mistakes. Those mistakes are going to have terrible consequences down the line. She’s got an interesting arc throughout the season. She has to deal with selling out all the principles of that program and what they were trying to do with Ethan.
EK: There are consequences to everybody’s actions in this story.

It was pretty funny to hear that Molly went after Julie with a shovel at John’s funeral. Did you film that? Can we hope for a flashback?
MF: We should’ve done that as a webisode.
EK: We’ll have to leave it to the imagination.
CS: You’re right though, we all want to see that.

Sam (Camryn Manheim) is referenced in the premiere, but not seen. Will she be back at all this season?
EK:
No.

And have we seen the end of the anti-technology rebel group from season one?
EK:
Yes, in this season they do not play a part in the story.
CS: We sort of said the whole world of what let’s call the ISDA, the space program, that world was wrapped up with the explosion of the space station. We’re moving to the world of the global security commission headed up by General Shepherd, David Morrissey’s character.
EK: It’s more of a combination between the NSA, threat assessment, homeland security — like a combo platter.

And Yasumoto (Hiroyuki Sanada)?
MF:
He was also part of that world that really feels like it reached its conclusion in season one. We’re moving into the new world where the threat Molly thought was contained in space is now earthbound and she’s on the trail to figure out how to stop it. She has new allies and enemies.

What was your inspiration for General Shepherd?
EK:
We talked about General Petraeus as an interesting idea; what those people have to carry with them every day and all the stuff they know about what’s out there.
CS: The responsibility that’s put on them.
EK: How do they lead any semblance of a normal life when they’re carrying all that knowledge of all the things that could kill us in an instant? We liked the story from that idea. And playing with the idea of what does it mean to be working for the greater good? Putting people in morally ambiguous situations and asking the question, “How would you handle it if you were in that situation?” As we know, when you’re the one having to make those decisions there are so many grey areas.

And you have a new male lead in Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Where did the idea for his character come from?
EK:
When we first sat down with Mickey, we were talking about what we thought would make season two really fun — to have somebody who was the outsider. Last season everybody was in the know about aliens, so nobody was acting freaked out. Jeffrey gets to be the Everyman, the guy along for the ride. It’s very Spielbergian to have a character like that, the person who acts as the audience point of view. He’s also a real contrast to Shepherd — the ultimate outsider versus the ultimate insider. That relationship is going to play out in very interesting ways both with Molly and with each other.
MF: He’s also a great contrast to Molly Woods. She’s an astronaut, a scientist, a woman with two PhDs, and he’s a blue collar cop who operates on instinct. People lie to him all day long and he has a highly attuned bulls— meter. At first glance they’re polar opposites, but he needs her to solve this case and she needs him to get on her side to stop this thing from happening to the human race. We talked about it like Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway in “Three Days of the Condor.”
EK: What we like also is he kind of dirties up the show. I don’t mean in the not showering way, but he’s rough around the edges. He kind of slaps the show around.
CS: He has an energy and a charm, and when [Halle and Jeffrey] get together, the two of them are just electric. We’re having a ball writing for them.

Halle became an executive producer this year. Does she have more creative input?
EK:
Absolutely. Craig and I spoke with Halle and Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, her producing partner, when we came on board and had extensive conversations about what she wanted to be doing this season. They gave us thoughts about what they wanted Molly to do and what they didn’t want her to do, and then gave us the creative room to find the story.

Was Molly’s new attitude something Halle was looking for as well?
EK:
Yeah, I think so. I think she was looking for a shift in the storytelling and where she’s going. She’s been in a certain place with the robot offspring and wanted to make sure we ventured out into new territory. We basically blew it up. There were so many breadcrumbs that Mickey and the writers room from last year left for us.
CS: We pulled out ideas to really explore.
EK: The key was to build on what they had and find the mysterious story of season two. We wanted to explore more completely Molly’s mythology and her character — who she is and why she is the way she is. We saw some of it last year when we met Lou Gossett [as Molly’s father], but we dig deep into Molly this year. We find out things about her we didn’t know.

Mickey, how much has the game plan changed from what you originally thought would happen after season one for things like Molly’s alien baby?
MF:
In terms of the big overall idea, it was always the same. In season two, the threat that we thought was contained in space is now earthbound and spreading and becomes a major problem here on Earth. The details and the way we go about it have changed, but I think that was inevitable once you get into it and start breaking down the story. Liz and Craig bring their energy to it and their ideas. It naturally evolves into its own thing. But when I pitched the show originally it was always my idea that this was the origin of a sci-fi world, and it was going to grow and adapt as humans had to grow and adapt when faced with first contact and the emergence of this super-powerful intelligence. In that way, the overall concept is the same.

Have you received any advice from (executive producer) Steven Spielberg about the new season?
EK:
Yeah … make it good. [laughs] He’s been directing two movies back-to-back, but we deal with his company Amblin quite a bit. Justin Falvey and Darryl Frank run the television division and we deal with them on a daily basis. Steven did give us notes on cuts through Darryl and Justin, and he seemed very pleased with the way the season is going.
MF: His fingerprints and DNA are all over the show. Liz mentioned there’s something Spielbergian about Jeffrey’s character. It’s something we bring up all the time in the writers room. You almost can’t help but reference [his movies] because he’s made so many of the great works of the genre in the last 30-40 years.
CS: It’s his spirit that keeps the storytelling grounded. It exists as much as it can in the real world. How people would really respond to these situations. In that sense, I feel like we’ve got him with us all the time.

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