This article may contain spoilers.
Based on the premise that the year is 2052, Defying Gravity is a new sci-fi series that follows the lives of 14 men and women who have reached the upper echelon of the international space program: 8 are astronauts selected for a 6 year mission to travel to 7 planets; two are former astronauts turned-instructors; two are upper management; one is a medical advisor and one is a member of the press.
This is an ambitiously large cast and initially it is overwhelming to try to figure out who is who and what role they play. The face that stands out as easiest to recognize is Ron Livingston, portraying Donner. (Livingston is best known for his work in the film Office Space and recently on the TV series Standoff.)
The story opens watching Donner forced to abandon two of his crew behind on a space mission to Mars. It is a bleak place to start and leaves the audience wondering why we should be rooting for a guy who left members of his team stranded on a planet to die.
After that the story splits into two timelines: in the first, it is 10 years later and Donner is watching 8 of his students prepare for their first space mission; simultaneously, we see flashbacks of 5 years earlier when Donner first meets each of his students as they enter the space program. At first, it is difficult to differentiate between the two different timelines and that requires one to pay close attention. For a point of reference, it helps that Laura Harrischaracter, Zoe, has long hair in the past and short hair in the present. (Harris is best known for her work on The Womens Murder Club, Dead Like Me, and 24.)
Essentially focusing on the love-story between Donner and Zoe, at least initially, we see the different phases of their relationship play out: they meet in a bar, she gets accepted into the space program, and 5 years later, she gets selected to go on the space mission, while Donner is left behind. But this may be an over-simplification. In the background, we also meet the other characters who are living their own lives which are just as rich and complex – and overshadowing them all, is the mysterious it which is directing them all on their journey.
The two space program executives that are running everything are Mission Control Commander Mike Goss and scientist Eve Shaw. They clearly know a lot more than they are telling anyone and they defer to the yet unnamed it. Additionally, Eve Shaw is married to Ted Shaw, Donners partner and fellow training instructor.
Another couple that features prominently is Jen Crane, a biologist (played by Christina Cox, best known for her work on the Lifetime vampire series Blood Ties), and Rollie Crane, the mission commander (played by Ty Olssen, best known as Plow Guy on Men In Trees, and recently as Sheriff Andy in Eureka). Cox and Olssens characters met during the 5 year training program, got married, and both were ultimately selected into the select 6 year space mission.
The rest of the characters remain in the background punctuating scenes with comedy and pathos as needed. The only other character given spotlight during the pilot episode was flight engineer Ajay Sharma. When both Rollie and Ajay are found to have developed a compromising heart condition, they are ordered to return to Earth. This abrupt loss of two key personnel rearranges the theoretical chess-board and everyone begins to wonder what exactly is going on.
Who is making the decisions on who goes and who stays? Is there a grand design behind this mysterious space voyage? These are the questions posed that hopefully the series will answer as future episodes play out.
The theme of this episode was “mercury in retrograde” which refers to when two bodies are traveling at different rates of speed, such that the slower moving body appears to be moving backwards. But in reality, it has nothing to with the rates of speed in which the two bodies are traveling. Instead, it is really about the change in their relationship.
“Defying Gravity” is not about who is going where and when, but rather how it changes the relationships of those who are on the journey.
Casting is clearly the strongest strength of this series. Each actor stands out on their own and brings surprising depth and relatability to their characters. This is key, for if the audience does not identify with and care for these characters, they will not be able to root for them, nor want to keep watching them on this long, arduous journey. Livingston is especially likable as Donner and draws the audience in easily. His portrayal of Donner, as a natural leader who the other characters are drawn to, is effortlessly done. It will be interesting to watch him as this story unfolds.
Another strong positive is the sleek, glassy space station used as the headquarters on Earth and its space station counterpart (the Antares) that carries the astronauts on their journey. Everything feels high-priced and inviting. Especially cool is the space clothing polarized with gravity so that the crew do not float about as they do their work on the space ship. Each crew member also wears a device called a HALO which is supposed to act as a libido-suppressant. (Though it was not clearly explained why sex in space is a bad idea and needs to be suppressed.)
What Didn’t Work
As helpful as the flashbacks are in introducing the characters and establishing their relationships, it is confusing to follow at times. It may have been better to save that storytelling device for a little later in the series once the characters were more firmly established.
Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due
Pilot is written by James D. Parriott and directed by David Straiton. The series stars Ron Livingston, Laura Harris, Christina Cox, Ty Olsson, Malik Yoba, Karen LeBlanc, Andrew Airlie, Maxim Roy, Paula Garces, Florentine Lahme, Zahf Paroo, Eyal Podell, Dylan Taylor, and Peter Howitt.
Defying Gravity airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on ABC.