Monday, March 24, 2014

Exploring the "Cosmos"

I'm too young to have seen the original "Cosmos" series hosted by Carl Sagan, which ran on PBS way back in 1980. However, I saw my share of nature and science programming in a similar vein as a kid, and enjoyed them. Lots of "Nova" and "Nature," and various educational documentary shorts screened in school or on museum trips. So I had a pretty good idea of what to expect from the new "Cosmos," which is inexplicably airing Sunday nights on the FOX television network, and being produced by "Family Guy" creator Seth McFarlane.

Well, maybe McFarlane's involvement isn't so inexplicable. "Cosmos" stands out from the rest of the crowd for its use of lots of CGI special effects, and there have been animated segments in each of the three episodes that have aired so far. The visual spectacle goes a long way in helping to keep my interest in the science lessons delivered by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Though Tyson makes for a very engaging lecturer, the American television audience wants shiny CGI, and boy do they get it. Gorgeous shots of celestial bodies are constantly displayed for us to marvel at. In the second episode, prehistoric creatures and microscopic structures are rendered for us in loving detail with computer animation. There's lots of green screen work, as Tyson interacts with a spiffy looking "ship of the imagination" and takes a walk on a giant "cosmic calendar."

So far the material has been great. The first episode covered a lot of astronomy concepts I was already pretty familiar with and had seen other programs cover in a similar, though less snazzy fashion. The second and third were more interesting for me because it was my first exposure to some of the concepts and ideas. I especially liked the use of the domestication of wolves into dogs as the lead-in to the discussion of evolutionary mechanisms and the development of life on Earth. I assumed from the title that "Cosmos" was only going to cover space exploration, but it looks everything related to science is going to be fair game, with outer space serving as a jumping-off point to get into all kinds of different topics. Personally, I'm hoping that we get into the climate change debate in future episodes.

I have a few nitpicks about the production, most of the them pretty minor. The longer 2D animated segments done with Flash look a little cheap next to all the CGI. Last night's program used a lot of it to relate the history of Isaac Newton's writing and publishing of the "Principia Mathematica," and the famous coffeehouse wager between Edmond Halley and Robert Hooke regarding planetary motion. In shorter doses these segments are all right, but the longer ones just highlight how stiff and limited the animation is. Also, the show tends to get carried away with the pageantry. This is especially evident with the full blown orchestral score, composed by Alan Silvestri, which tends to sound much too concerned about being big and impressive. They could stand to tone down the fireworks a bit.

"Cosmos" stands out as an anomaly on network television because it is so high-minded and so ambitious. I don't think there's been anything comparable since the "Planet Earth" documentary series, and even that didn't have the same pointedly educational aims. While I've been enjoying "Cosmos" and applaud its creators and the FOX networks for airing it, I can't help but be mystified as to how the new show managed to happen in the current television landscape. Is Seth McFarlane's leverage so great that he get a thirteen-part science documentary on primetime solely as a passion project? Is someone at FOX purposely trying to pursue loftier programming choices as a new tactic in light of their "American Idol" numbers cratering?

I have to bring up the fact that FOX's news organization has traditionally been very right-wing and anti-science. And of course, the new "Cosmos" is already drawing fire from anti-evolution folks, particularly after the second episode which devoted a good amount of its screen time to laying out the case for natural selection and directly addressed some anti-evolution positions. The cognitive dissonance going on is pretty breathtaking, even though FOX News and the other FOX subsidiaries have always had very little to do with each other. I have to say it's nice to get something so pro-science in a year where we're seeing a resurgence of Bible epics at the box office and the culture war shows no signs of abating.

But I'm getting off track. If "Cosmos" does well, will it mean more prime time documentary series in the future? Will the networks be inspired to create more educational programming? I'd love to see the production values of "Cosmos" or "Planet Earth" applied to history and culture programs. Or more regular science and technology programming, focused on current developments in a variety of different fields. There's been a lot going on recently that could use more attention and support.


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