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Series shows promise; whether it delivers is still to be seen

CBS’ new science-fiction drama “Extant” debuted July 9 to 9.4 million viewers. Those numbers might sound great in connection with most new shows, but the network has been shooting for the stars with “Extant.” For a premiere hyped so heavily I’m sure the CBS brass was hoping for ratings a bit more stellar.

How often can a network like CBS boast a series executive produced by Steven Spielberg and starring Oscar-winner Halle Berry? But high-profile pedigrees can be as much a curse as a blessing. CBS is likely paying a small fortune to license this program, and with the one-two punch behind Spielberg and Berry, expectations have been running very high — perhaps too high. Science fiction — even when it’s done well with an A-list movie actor in the lead — is a hard sell on broadcast television.

Not that “Extant” is hard-core science fiction; it more closely resembles today’s science, just taken a few steps forward. Berry plays Molly Woods, an astronaut who has just returned after spending 13 months completely isolated aboard a space station. She returns home to her husband John (Goran Visnjic) and young son Ethan (Pierce Gagnon). John is a brilliant scientist who has created the prototype for a line of artificial beings he calls Humanichs, and Ethan is that prototype. John and Molly wanted to have a child, but she is infertile, and Ethan is John’s solution to their problem.

Shortly after her return from space, however, Molly learns she is pregnant. Her physician and friend Dr. Sam Barton (Camryn Manheim) — who also works for the space program — agrees to hide Molly’s immaculate conception for the time being while Molly searches for an answer. She believes it has something to do with a blackout she experienced while on the station, during which she may have been visited and impregnated by Marcus Dawkins (Sergio Harford), a dead lover from her past. Then again she may have just imagined it.

Episodes of “Extant” will be peppered with flashbacks of Molly’s time in space. Back on Earth she has to deal with a pregnancy she won’t be able to explain; the appearance of a second dead visitor from her past, Tyler Hilton (Charlie Arthurs), a fellow astronaut who died suspiciously in a tragic accident a year earlier and has now apparently returned to warn her not to trust anybody; and Ethan’s increasingly erratic behavior, which could destroy John’s work as well as the couple’s marriage.

Many elements of “Extant” just left me cold. I felt no real chemistry between Molly and John. Although they go through the motions of being a happily married couple, there just doesn’t seem to be any real passion in their relationship — or their lives for that matter. I imagine that could be plausibly explained as a natural extension of the banal, monotone world of which they’re a part. The only true affection Molly exhibits is for Marcus, whose death it appears she has never gotten over.

I particularly had a difficult time liking John, who comes across as a very arrogant and undisciplined scientist. He’s a brilliant man who is obviously conflicted and unfocused; this becomes most obvious in two of Visnjic’s best-played scenes. The first occurs as John presents his funding pitch before the board of the Yasumoto Corp. When asked what procedures are in place to terminate the Humanichs should issues arise, John replies there are none whatsoever, and compares such an action to killing his own son. The man has obviously crossed an ethical line in adopting the first Humanichs’ prototype as his son.

I feel for poor Ethan. Molly clearly lacks any sincere maternal instinct for him. At one point she argues to John that Ethan “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.” John’s response is both troubling and telling: “That kid is the closest we’re ever going to get to being parents.” Sounds like he’s settling for “second best.” What if he were to father a biological child? Where would that leave Ethan in his affections?

There may also be a flaw in John’s science. He wants his Humanichs to evolve by living and learning from flesh-and-blood human beings in order to provide them with the human experience. “They have to learn like children — right from wrong, good from bad — no guarantees, free to choose their own paths,” he insists. The problem here seems to be why would John want his creations to develop their sense of morality from human beings when the world is so filled with crime, wars and indifference?

In the coming weeks (and possibly seasons), I imagine “Extant” will pose some hefty questions concerning the morality of the human species and the meaning of life. Hopefully the questions won’t become so ponderous that they can’t be dealt with allegorically within the confines of the Wood family. “Extant” holds promise. Whether they’ll deliver on that promise is still to be seen.

“Extant” airs at 9 p.m. Wednesday on CBS.

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