October 22, 2017

Posted March 20, 2014 by D. K. Holm

At a time when knowledge and even intelligence is assailed from all sides, it seems churlish to criticize any network attempt to cater to viewers who want to learn. Equally, it is unfair to criticize a television show after only two episodes. Cosmos, the new program that remakes the Carl Sagan PBS series, and which airs on Fox on Sunday night, closely birddogs the earlier show, with up-to-date cosmic information uncoverd by scientists since 1980. Produced by the multidimensional Seth McFarlane, cartoonist-voice artist-actor-director-producer-lounge singer, Cosmos mirrors the original episodes loosely – at least so far. But after 80 minutes, there are already three strikes against it.

• Up to date special effects do not necessarily translate into a better or more realistic show. In fact, the computer-generated background imagery can strike the viewer as highly artificial. Instead of “taking us into space” aboard the space ship of the imagination, instead we feel as if we are passing through a museum diorama.

• Host and spokesperson Neil Degrasse Tyson does a fine job as far as it goes, and he is apparently the contemporary equivalent of Sagan, but he is a somewhat less engaging presence, a little more polished and thus chillier, and prone to acting out scenes as if a thespian were buried beneath his lunar dust awaiting release.

• Mr. Tyson is much more aggressive in his anti-religion stance, not only unusual for a commercial network, but also one that is at risk of alienating the very people whom the show must convince or at least engage. While Sagan included various quotes from the Bible and texts from other cultures, perhaps in an attempt to present a continuity between variant searches for knowledge and origin explanations, Mr. Tyson clubily sneers at the efforts of religious sects to quash the acquisition of knowledge, undoubtedly true, but not likely to speak to those who need to learn the fact.

At least one virtue of the new program is that it drives the viewer back to the original. I had forgotten not only the sophistication of Cosmos, and how engaging Sagan was behind his unusual pronunciations, but I had also forgotten  the often emotional tone of the program. Some episodes can even almost bring you to tears at their conclusion. Among my favorite is episode number seven, which tracks the ups and the downs of scientific endeavor from the Ionians through the dark ages to almost the present, ending on the note of exuberance and optimism. It is a sense of the sublime and the beautiful that is missing, at least so far, from the current endeavor. However, the program is current and educational, so there is no reason not to watch it, and many more reasons to stay with it, if for no other reason than to encourage the media in general to embrace intelligence on the tube.