There’s a point in “Salvation,” CBS’ newest summer sci-fi offering, where one of the series’ two geniuses runs down all the obstacles that currently stand in the way of them saving all of humanity from the impending asteroid hurtling toward Earth. The series’ other genius reacts not with a calming response or even a clear solution, but instead with a quip: “If Superman caught the villain on page two, what fun would that be?”
That’s certainly an understandable argument for the sake of storytelling; after all, the writers only have 13 episodes (so far) to tell the story of an asteroid that’s six months away from destroying all of humanity. The problem is, “Salvation” quickly proves itself to lack a key point in that quip: Fun.
From former “Hawaii Five-0” writer Matt Wheeler and the showrunning team of Liz Kruger and Craig Shapiro (who previously ran the second season of “Extant”) “Salvation” takes the always fun pop culture concept of a killer asteroid/meteor/comet from outer space (“Armageddon,” “Deep Impact”) and removes fun from the equation. Asking for the fun in a series about the potential destruction of the human race may sound crass, but on the same network where “Zoo” has reached something of a cult following for its over-the-top storytelling, “Salvation” doesn’t realize how enjoyable it could be.
“Salvation” does have a proven core cast: Jennifer Finnigan (Grace Barrows), Ian Anthony Dale (Harris Andrews), and Santiago Cabrera (Darius Tanz), who gets to show off his charm more here than he did in “Big Little Lies.” As head of PR for the Department of Defense, Deputy Secretary of Defense, and genius tech pioneer, respectively, their characters are three of the 40 or so people who even know that the asteroid is coming, as the United States government wants to keep it a secret in order to prevent mass hysteria.
But unfortunately, instead of investing in these larger-than-life characters (each with intertwined backstories), “Salvation” makes the decision to put that burden on its far less dynamic characters. “Salvation” includes not just one but two requisite misunderstood genius characters — but the problem is, only one of them works here. While MIT grad student Liam Cole (Charlie Rowe) is crucial in getting the ball rolling, his usefulness quickly translates into becoming an assistant (and potential liability) to the smarter and better connected Tanz. Even worse, Liam’s decision to help save the world is only spurred by what Jillian (Jacqueline Byers) — a girl he falls for in the span of a day — thinks would be the right thing to do.
And the greatest detriment to anything resembling momentum for “Salvation” comes in the form of Washington D.C. journalist Amanda Neel (Shazi Raja), who represents a type that’s quickly becoming just as prevalent as the misunderstood genius: a tabloid writer who wants to be respected in the world of political journalism. Yet she has no problem attempting blackmail to get a story she wants. Her biggest triumph comes in the form of a scoop that only exists because the writing needs it to, as it requires a minor character with very high security clearance to share top secret information with a civilian family member.
It’s no surprise that Liam and Amanda are the characters who feel most like they’re “playing along” with the thriller concept that “Salvation” markets itself as. There are conspiracies and surveillance and murders, but those are honestly take away from the asteroid concept in an attempt to somehow make that more interesting. But the idea of an asteroid coming to kill everyone is interesting on its own; there doesn’t need to be a conspiracy against the people trying to stop it. “Salvation” has an interesting story somewhere deep down — and a cast that’s mostly capable — but it doesn’t care to tell it.