More than 45 years after “The Man Who Fell to Earth” opened with a melancholy David Bowie crash-landing in a Kentucky lake, Showtime’s new sequel series sends Chiwetel Ejiofor spiraling into the New Mexican desert to finish what he started. The connection between the 1976 film and this 2022 show is clear from the beginning, even before Bill Nighy shows up as the older version of Bowie’s character, Thomas Newton. And yet there’s not a whole lot that Alex Kurtzman and Jenny Lumet’s more straightforward version shares with its stylish predecessor beyond their shared premise.
Some of that stark difference is by design, especially when it comes to the particular space oddity anchoring this continuation. In the first four episodes of the season, Ejiofor’s Farraday represents the show’s most purposeful and successful deviation from the one at the heart of Walter Tevis’ novel and Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation, not least because there’s no one who can exactly echo Bowie’s ethereal footsteps (though Nighy, probably the best bit of elder Bowie casting the show could’ve managed, gets as close as he can). Ejiofor provides a complete contrast from his anxious, robotic physicality to the wide-eyed ways in which he expresses confusion, loneliness, and fear.
Farraday is also far less interested in adapting to life on Earth than Newton, whether that means food, sex, or understanding the frustrating nuances of human emotion. This is less because he’s incapable of feeling anything, rather than the fact that, as he emphasizes at every possible turn, his species is nearly extinct. He’s blunter and more focused in his desperation to save his home planet — the mission Newton abandoned in a drunken haze, even before the CIA intervened.
Herein lies the second significant difference between “Man Who Fell to Earth” iterations, basically by necessity. Taking place almost half a century after Newton was supposed to save his overheated planet, the series tells an even more overt climate crisis story about Farraday and lapsed scientist Justin Falls (Naomie Harris) trying to save ours, too. Their partnership ostensibly makes up the backbone of this series, which makes it even more frustrating that Harris spends the better part of three episodes asking him questions in shocked disbelief.
As will surprise no one paying even an ounce of attention to the very real news, the series’ main antagonists are the corporate entities that remain too invested in mining the Earth for oil to care about bleeding it dry in the process. While sadistic CIA agent Spencer Clay (an unnerving Jimmi Simpson) and handler Drew (Kate Mulgrew, great even in small doses) go on a manhunt for Newton, the heirs of Newton’s purloined tech company (Sonya Cassidy and Rob Delaney) squabble about the future of his precious patents. Simpson gets the higher stakes action, but it’s Cassidy and Delaney who steal more scenes as the Flood siblings, thanks to the contrast of Cassidy’s unnerving chill against Delaney’s hotheaded anxiety.
Just as in the Roeg film, Kurtzman and Lumet’s “Man Who Fell to Earth” is at its most intriguing during such clashes of tone, or more simply, at its most bizarre. That could mean ghostly Newton issuing warnings between slugs of gin and tornado gusts, or Farraday gulping gallons of water for dear life, or Justin trying to keep herself together in the eerie quiet of the Floods’ ancestral home. Considering the gorgeous strangeness of its source material, however, the production seems overall hesitant to get too weird lest it repel the audience for good.
Kurtzman, a prolific producer behind the “Star Trek” franchise’s latest iterations, directed the first four episodes, and takes about as long to stretch himself beyond a more rote approach. And beyond the boundaries of Justin’s desert home, which her ailing father (Clarke Peters) once decked out in mischievous metalworks, not even the production or set design do much to create a world anything unlike our own.
The series’ most egregious mistake, though, might just be its very first scene. In showing a wildly successful Farraday telling his story to a rapturous crowd like some extra-terrestrial Elon Musk, “The Man Who Fell to Earth” falls prey to one of current TV’s most tired clichés of opening in the future before flashing back to explain how it happened. In fact, knowing that Farraday convinces the world that he’s an otherworldly genius before we understand how deflates a good deal of the tension out of the show before it even starts. It makes some sense that the Earth that Farraday fell to isn’t quite as peculiar as the one Newton did, but the series would be more memorable if it were even half as uncanny.
“The Man Who Fell to Earth” premieres Sunday, April 24 at 10 pm.