ex·tant [ˈekstənt,ekˈstant/ ]
1. (especially of a document) still in existence; surviving.
There, now you’ll be the talk of the office at the water cooler tomorrow.
Much of this summer’s TV buzz has circulated around Extant, the Halle Berry sci-fi vehicle premiering July 9 on CBS. With the heft of Steven Spielberg on board as producer and the summer’s eeriest premise, the thriller promised to be a gleaming light of television narrative and originality during what can be typically the trashiest weeks of TV. So, now that we’ve blasted off into space with Berry—how did it do?
It appears that CBS may have scored on its gamble with Extant, a mostly compelling and categorically original story that’s part conspiracy thriller, part family drama, and part cautionary technology tale (most likely). It’s that last bit—addressing our growing curiosity with human-robot relationships and our increasingly divergent opinions about the nature of the future—that’ll likely prove to be one of the more interesting elements of Extant, which takes place in a near future with plenty of fun gadgets reminiscent of technologically prescient films like Her or Minority Report.
Extant’s premise sounds easy enough—Molly, an astronaut who spent 13 months on a solo mission in space, struggles to reconnect with her husband (Goran Visnjic) and son Ethan (Pierce Gagnon). Oh, and Ethan happens to be a robot. And Molly happens to be pregnant, despite spending a year alone. And there may or may not be aliens, fake suicides, hallucinations, government and corporate conspiracies, and a systematic product roll-out of robotic children who yearn for soft, warm, human
Sure, Extant poses some lofty philosophical questions about human souls and science, but that’s not why you’re here this summer. It’s Berry, and she is in fine form as Molly, an unreliable heroine who perhaps doesn’t even comprehend the information she’s intent on withholding. Berry nails the role of detached wife and mother, but the real gem of the performance is when Berry balances Molly’s frustration and “I’m pregnant!?” disbelief with an undertone of deceitful self-awareness that makes her a fully-formed character of clashing motives.
Perhaps it’s simply the case of being a loaded pilot, but Extant managed to pack a whopping number of story lines into its hour premiere. Let’s dive in:
Story #1: Halle Berry and the Implausible Pregnancy
First, the baby story—or, as I like to call it, the only story line to get play on your DVR description. Molly’s friendly neighborhood gynecologist Dr. Sam (Camryn Manheim) delivers the confusing news that, despite spending 13 months alone in space, Molly is pregnant. As Sam tries to come up with any rational explanation—even casually suggesting that maybe Molly had a one night stand with a cosmic international hitchhiker from a neighboring space station—Molly asks that she withhold it from the medical report so she can tell her husband and process the news. But does Molly even need to process? Truthfully, she doesn’t seem all that surprised after the initial shock wears off. That’s because Molly knows what she did… or does she?!
Story #2: Halle Berry and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Spaceship Encounter
Well, yes, she does. Kind of. That leads us to the other major arc, that bizarre spaceship encounter. What exactly happened during Molly’s mission to result in this alien pregnancy? We flash back to Molly in the spaceship, and she’s doing the usual astronaut things—pressing buttons, cultivating plants, exchanging light banter with the ship’s artificial intelligence Ben (or B.E.N., because future!!). But then a solar flare knocks out power, and Molly goes to investigate. That’s when she sees him: Marcus, her super hot cardigan-wearing dead ex-boyfriend, who writes “Help me” in the frosted glass of the neighboring vestibule. Molly wisely pins a camera to her chest and hits record before letting “Marcus” in. He seems distant, perhaps more alien than robotic, but she cautiously lets him caress her face and E.T. finger-point at her belly (but was it a pregnancy-inducing finger-point?). Molly reaches out to touch this zombified Marcus, and their exchange is almost Fault in Our Stars-ian in its simplicity:
Molly: Do you need help?
Molly: What can I do?
Molly: It’s ok.
Marcus: It’s ok. It’s ok. It’s ok. It’s ok.
[Shrinking iris wipe to black.]
We’re not sure how much time has passed before we fade back in to Molly, jolting awake and rushing to watch the footage of what may or may not have just happened. Lo and behold, the security footage reveals that there she is, alone in the vestibule, caressing an invisible body that isn’t there. (Kudos to Berry for acting out that solo make-out session with aplomb.) Molly deletes the overhead footage (but did she delete all of it?). And so we get the big mystery: what happened to Molly between fade-out and fade-in?
Story #3: Harmon Kryger and the Possible Suicide
Molly’s solar flare experience mirrors that of another astronaut: Harmon Kryger, who evidently committed suicide shortly after his return to Earth. His erratic mental behavior following his return is supposedly the reason Molly now has to undergo psychiatric evaluation as a requirement for her debriefing. But at the episode’s end, Kryger shows up in Molly’s backyard, disheveled and bearded and, well, alive, claiming that he knows what happened to her on board the ship. Is he actually alive, or is this a hallucination of Molly’s? What does Kryger know, and how does he know it? And was he the mysterious stranger who sent Molly a message in the park that said, “I know what happened to you”? What’s your damage, Kryger?
Story #4: Sparks and Yasumoto Throw Major Shade
The similarities between Kryger and Molly’s solar flares raise eyebrows at ISEA during Molly’s debriefing. She tells Director Sparks (Michael O’Neill) and the seemingly friendly Kern (Maury Sterling) that she accidentally deleted the 13 hours of video footage following the flare, but the mistake is uncharacteristic of Molly and raises a red flag for Sparks. He retreats to a giant lab and relays the whole encounter to Yasumoto (Hiroyuki Sanada), a wealthy businessman who emerges from a fancy tub of Vegemite. “This could be everything,” Sparks tells Yasumoto, explaining the ties to Kryger and recommending that the money man invest in Molly’s husband John’s research project to keep her close and under watch.
Story #5: John and the Real Boy
What’s that research project? John is seeking funding for Humanics, a robot manufacturing company intent on bringing humanity to machines by building androids that learn from human connection and experiences. The example is Ethan, their reticent son who is only moderately less creepy than the homicidal telepath Gagnon played in Looper. Though John’s funding is denied by the board, Yasumoto reaches out to privately fund the research, meaning that Ethan likely won’t be the only robo-child we’ll be seeing this summer.
Story #6: Family Drama!
And course, there’s also the humane element of the whole thing: Molly’s re-entry to Earth after 13 months finds her struggling to connect again with her family. John is distant, but Ethan is even more so, as evidenced by a harrowing day at the park involving a temper tantrum and a dead bird that Ethan may or may not have killed and built a shrine to. Molly chalks the detachment up to Ethan’s inhumanity, declaring, “He doesn’t love me! He executes a series of commands that you’ve programmed into him. He approximates a behavior that resembles love, but that’s not love.” Woah. Deep stuff, Moll. It’ll be interesting to see how that relationship plays out during Extant’s first season. Will Molly find a way to reconnect with Ethan? And will John’s bond with his robo-son weaken now that he’s basically entering the business of creating a thousand other Ethans?
With that, all the parts are in place for Extant to dive into a 13-episode season that’ll no doubt be heavy on the corporate espionage, sci-fi spooks, and Oscar-winning Halle Berry facial expressions. I’ll be watching—will you?