The name on everyone’s tongue at the first screening under SXSW’s new Episodic banner may not be who you would expect. It wasn’t Neil deGrasse Tyson, who did receive a thunderous ovation from the packed house at Austin’s Paramount Theater. It wasn’t writer of both the new and old editions of “COSMOS,” Ann Druyan. It wasn’t even anyone at the festival who hosted the lively late night screening. No, it was Seth MacFarlane whom all four representatives of “COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey” couldn’t stop praising.
MacFarlane, who served as executive producer for “COSMOS” and even lent his voice to one of the animated characters, was not at the screening, but it felt like he was lurking behind the curtain, waiting to jump out and accept his accolades in person. “I didn’t expect anything to come of it,” Tyson said, describing his first encounter with the creator of “Ted” and “Family Guy.” “It’s Hollywood after all, and he’s Seth MacFarlane after all. [Four months later] he asked, ‘How can I advance science in this country?’ That was his question. Seth MacFarlane. Perhaps best known at the time for fart jokes.”
Tyson’s answer was “COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey.” The reinvention of the Emmy award-winning show from 1980 was met with much enthusiasm on the first day of the SXSW festival, and the series’ first episode did not disappoint. With magnificent visuals and direct, effective communication through host Neil deGrasse Tyson, the pilot flight of the new “Ship of the Imagination” could not have been smoother. And afterward, during a 45-minute Q&A, the makers couldn’t have been more enthusiastic about the man who makes fart jokes.
“[They] made a point, and I want to make it again, of how grateful we are [to Seth MacFarlane],” said executive producer Mitchell Cannold. “He got us tens of millions of dollars. He got us final cut. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”
Tyson went on to say he thought maybe MacFarlane would help him make a pilot for “COSMOS” to show networks what the group was capable of without interference from executives. Instead, MacFarlane proposed taking it to Fox. Tyson balked at first, but took a few seconds to think it over and came to a realization. “Fox, then, had the number one show on television. Fox is 20th Century Fox. Fox is Fox Searchlight Pictures. It’s Fox Business. It’s Fox Sports. It’s Fox Network. Yes, it’s Fox News,” the last comment eliciting a laughs and a few boos from the crowd. “It’s all of these branches of human demographics on roads crossing in a portfolio of Fox. And you have sort of the conservative commentary that goes on in Fox News and the acerbic, liberal commentary that goes on in ‘Family Guy’ as well as in ‘The Simpsons.’ Fox has all of this! And I think to myself, ‘If science is going to reach the largest possible audience, that’s the network it ought to be in. So by the tenth second, I said ‘That’s the most brilliant idea I’ve ever heard.'”
The new, 13 episode iteration of the educational, scientific adventure program sports plenty of updates without losing the focus of its original concept. Tyson takes over for former host Carl Sagan, who was lovingly referenced numerous times by former collaborator Druyan during the post-screening Q&A. The beloved scientist received almost as many ovations as Tyson — which is significant considering how many jokes the jovial astrophysicist cracked Friday night (his Twitter followers were in a frenzy). We’re also treated to a new ship, a new show title — “A Spacetime Odyssey” rather than “A Personal Voyage” — and, most impressively, some incredible visual effects.
Perhaps the most compelling reason to have seen “COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey” at SXSW was to see the incredible vision on the big screen. The special effects — Druyan said the series has more than most feature films — were literally out of this world. For a network television program, they’re unparalleled to anything I can recall. The soaring nature of the cinematography lent itself perfectly to a big screen presentation, and the intricate detail of planets, stars, and Earth have a mesmerizing effect. The powerful visuals paired with Tyson’s booming narration make the series feel as important as a 10 channel simultaneous airing demands.
“COSMOS” is set to premiere across 10 Fox networks Sunday night at 9 pm, and stay tuned to Indiewire for all your SXSW information.