Extant CBS

CBS’s summer slate is turning out to be nothing like their regular season fare. While tired procedurals that basically tell the same story week after week dominate CBS programming from September through May, June, July, and August have suddenly become a spot for mind-bendy, dramatic, highly serialized science fiction shows, of the likes which FOX might air and quickly cancel in the fall. Last year’s Under the Dome is a decent series, but EXTANT, premiering this week, promises to be quite a bit better.

EXTANT tells the story of an astronaut, Molly Woods (Halle Berry, the X-Men films), whom, after thirteen months alone in space, returns to Earth pregnant and in the middle of a conspiracy. She experiences something very strange during her mission, which we see in flashbacks throughout the pilot, “Re-entry,” and is determined not to reveal to anyone what she saw and felt. Those who would control her on the ground may or may not know what she knows, but they have had issues with other astronauts in recent years and are definitely are keeping a close eye on Molly.

In the second major element of the series, Molly’s husband, John (Goran Visnjic, ER), has created an artificial intelligence to satisfy the couple’s un-fulfilled urge to have a child. The boy, named Ethan (Pierce Gagnon, One Tree Hill), is every bit as self-aware as the kid at the center of A.I., but with an added creepiness where viewers are left to wonder if he is performing as designed to do or is the first stage in a robotic uprising. Of course, this question is barely posed in the first episode, nowhere near an answer yet, but worth exploring.

Thus we get a suspenseful mystery, a tale of corrupt leadership, a Big Brother-like level of secret monitoring, questions about the existence of a soul and the ethics of creating life, and many other smart elements all wrapped into one. The writers have spun a very interconnected web of characters and motivations, obviously intelligently put together in “Re-entry” alone, and an incredibly enjoyable watch.

That is not to say that the show is without problems. At first, I wondered about a huge plot hole in Molly trying to keep her secrets her own, but then realized that the character is acting exactly as many would given the circumstances, logical or not. More troubling is that she has the means to try to cover things up, which I find unrealistic given the level of scrutiny she is under.

Overall, though, EXTANT is very good, definitely the best thing on the broadcast networks this summer. It’s exciting, fast-paced, gorgeous in its special effects demonstrating futuristic technology (it is not set in the present day), a world that captures the imagination, and a story that engages viewers. The questions it raises are deep, and the universe these characters live in is one I can see us getting very close to within my lifetime, even if we’re still many decades away from it. It feels right.

The acting is pretty convincing. I’m not a big fan of Berry, never have been, though she does a serviceable job. I like Visnjic a lot here, and Gagnon is amazing, given his age and relative lack of experience. The supporting cast also includes some capable players such as Camryn Manheim (The Practice) as Molly’s doctor and friend, Grace Gummer (The Newsroom) as a colleague of John’s, Michael O’Neill (Rectify, Bates Motel) as Molly’s boss, and Hiroyuki Sanada (Helix, Lost) as John’s investor. Plus, Annie Wersching (24), Brad Beyer (Jericho), and Tyler Hilton (One Tree Hill) serve recurring roles. Most of these are not A-listers, but they are no slouches, either.

If you’ve been on the fence about whether to give EXTANT a try, and believe me, I understand that position, please do. You’re likely to be pleasantly surprised at the superior effort put forward. More summer shows like this and CBS will be a competitor in the hotter months for the first time.

EXTANT premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on CBS.