The arrival tonight of the new science fiction thriller “Extant” on CBS isn’t just another launch of a new series on a broadcast network. Rather, it represents a carefully considered expansion of CBS’ continued dedication to providing summer programming and reinforces its recently renewed interest in adding quality scripted fare to its summer schedule.
That interest paid off last summer with the first season of “Under the Dome” -- a big success both for CBS, and afterwards, for Amazon Prime. “Dome” may be down a bit this summer, but it is far from out. It stands to reason that the addition of a second high profile scripted series to CBS’ summer schedule might change that, given that they are both genre series and together offer countless opportunities for cross-promotion. More significantly, “Dome” and “Extant” are not simply imports from outside the American television industry or cast-off shows deemed too insubstantial for inclusion in the “traditional” television season, as are so many other original broadcast drama series that land on the networks’ summer schedules. They were developed specifically as escapist summer fare, a concept that has eluded many broadcast and basic cable networks over the years.
I can’t imagine getting caught up in either of these shows around the December holidays, or during the darkest days of winter. But they’re just right for enjoying on laid-back summer nights, a concept that still counts for something in the era of TV Anytime and Anywhere. In addition, the serialized nature of these shows makes them prime choices for aftermath binge viewing, even if some of us enjoy living with them throughout an entire summer season rather than one busy weekend.
Of course, the heavyweight talent attached to these two series makes them even more noteworthy. “Dome” has as its foundation a novel by Stephen King, who is also involved with the show itself. “Extant” counts among its executive producers Steven Spielberg and stars Academy Award and Emmy Award-winning actress Halle Berry, one of those giant stars who can pick and choose which projects to join or to develop as she sees fit. Surely it means something that she chose as the first television series in which she played the lead one designed as summer entertainment on a broadcast network. (“Extant” is not Berry’s first series. Does anyone remember “Living Dolls,” the short-lived 1989 spinoff of the classic sitcom “Who’s the Boss”?)
Tonight’s episode of “Extant” begins with a close up of Berry’s character, astronaut Molly Woods, vomiting into a toilet. My first thought watching this was, “Welcome back to TV, Halle Berry.” Given the advance publicity for the show, it is not spoiling anything for anyone to reiterate here that Woods is pregnant following a close encounter of a very mysterious kind during her most recent assignment, a solo mission in space during which she was most definitely not alone. (Frankly, I would have found a better way to reveal that Woods was with child -- or with alien baby, to be more precise -- other than to depict her in the throes of morning sickness, but that’s television today.) Intensifying the mystery surrounding her condition, we learn that in addition to supposedly being alone in space for one year, Woods has been told by her doctors that she cannot conceive.
Just a few minutes in, it becomes clear that “Extant” looks like it’s going to be way more fun than just about anything set to premiere this fall on the broadcast networks. It begins to tell a multi-layered mystery story with very creepy undertones, and it is filled with cool futuristic inventions that are as common in the lives of its characters as smart phones are in our lives today. Woods and her husband even have a scientifically engineered son known as a “humanic.”
There is a lot going on in “Extant,” but unlike the premieres of other recent genre efforts it isn’t confusing or overwhelming to process. It helps that every element of this fantasy is grounded in easily relatable relationships. Even with aliens and artificial intelligence in the mix, the story spins around a woman’s connection to her husbands (first and second) and children (artificial and unborn).
It may be that “Dome” is losing some of its audience this season because the relationships between its characters still are not as vivid in its second season as those in “Extant” are by its second half-hour. Plot will only take a series so far, no matter how engaging it may be. Regardless, every effort should be made to encourage CBS and the other broadcasters to continue developing similarly engaging summer fare.