When Fox announced that Seth MacFarlane —
Would MacFarlane, whose humor is beloved by stoners near and far, deliver the spaciest, most psychedelic light show ever to make it to network TV? Or would he craft a vision of space built on the video-game graphics, fast-editing, and relentlessly rumbling and smashing sound effects that his younger fans require?
The answer to both questions is: Yes, and so much more. Based on a preview of the first of 13 episodes, “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” is certainly trippy and visually dazzling, but it’s also a big-thought-provoking series crammed with scientific and historical fact. Hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, it is a transporting mass of CGI special effects and cartoon sequences, but it has the heft and scope of cable’s most esteemed science series, “Planet Earth” and “Life.”
Interestingly, the new “Cosmos” doesn’t bother with the science-avoidance and the creationism that have been forwarded by the religious factions with increasing fervency in recent years. If “Cosmos” is available to be used in the classroom after it airs, there are a few school districts that probably won’t be queuing up. In the middle of the planets and stars that swirl throughout the premiere, Sunday at 9 on Fox, there is an animated biography of Giordano Bruno, the 16th-century friar who was burned at the stake for his modern ideas about infinite space. The tone of the new “Cosmos” is deeply celebratory of pure science, the bravery of scientists, and the gains in science in the 34 years since Sagan’s version. Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re on Fox and definitely not on Fox News.
Sagan was the perfect host in 1980, with his smiling enthusiasm (and his period hair style and sideburns) as he gushed about how “the cosmos is full beyond measure of elegant truths, of exquisite interrelationships, of the awesome machinery of nature.” He projected reason and passion in equal parts, as he explained what we know about the cosmos without forsaking the magic. He also consistently wove philosophical perspectives on time and space into the journey, making it clear that we are only, as the band Kansas put it only three years before the series, “dust in the wind.”
Tyson, who describes Sagan as his mentor in the premiere, is an appealing alternative. The director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, he is clearly in love with the science, and he shares Sagan’s affection for poetic turns of phrase, such as how we are “but one tiny bubble in an infinite ocean of other universes.” Like Sagan, he manages lines about “perpetual night” and “universe upon universe” without sounding cheesy. And he wisely avoids theatricality, too, resisting the temptation to compete with the drama of the sophisticated graphics, as they pull us into other worlds. He’s got a low-key charm that makes him an engaging guide.
My sense of the new “Cosmos” — whose team includes Ann Druyan, Sagan’s widow and a collaborator on the original — is that it deserves credit for maintaining dignity. In an age when too many TV documentaries succumb to reality-style formats, and when so many reboots of old shows are little more than ratings ploys, and when special effects obscure or replace substance, MacFarlane and his partners have kept their eyes on the value of the material. They have created something that arouses wonderment, despite the fact that it’s airing in prime time, in front of mainstream viewers. Let’s see if it flies.
Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.