Here is the most important thing to know about “Extant” that you may not already know: Halle Berry has a robot son. That’s right, CBS’s new thriller drama, executive produced by Steven Spielberg and premiering tonight, takes place in the not-too-distant future, and so when astronaut Molly Woods (Berry) returns from a 13-month mission in space, she returns to her husband John (Goran Visnjic), but also their robot son Ethan (Pierce Gagnon).
You find this out in the first five minutes of the premiere, that Ethan is a robot. It’s a cool detail, but would you have been able to guess from any of the promotion? Nope.
Instead, “Extant” is being sold on the mystery ostensibly at the core of the series, which is how an infertile woman who’s been alone in space for 13 months can return to Earth pregnant. It is indeed an intriguing question, but reducing the plot to “Halle Berry got knocked up in space” actually ends up being a disservice to the first episode’s promise of actual depth.
Over the course of the pilot, a surprisingly dense amount of plot is laid out, mostly to do with the mysterious Yasumoto Corporation, which not only privately funded Molly’s trip to space (which should come as no surprise to any NASA fan who’s watched the agency’s budget get slashed year after year) but is now supporting Visnjic’s robot passions.
Where this plot is leading is actually uncertain, a pleasant surprise these days. The dictionary definition of the not-made-up word “extant” is “currently or actually existing,” but the show’s title animation and trailers hint at the threat of humanity’s extinction. Discovering how this all ties into an evil corporation manipulating Halle Berry’s uterus could make for enjoyable summer fare.
(It is of course unfortunate that the Yasumoto Corporation is so obviously a manipulative, and potentially malevolent, element — the evil corporation is at this point a pretty tired trope. But who knows what other secrets could unfold?)
The cast includes some great talent — Berry’s range as an actress seems perfect for the small screen, and while her chemistry with Visnjic isn’t 100 percent there, that may be by design; his bullishness suggests some compelling conflict down the road. Camryn Manheim puts in a solid appearance as Molly’s friend/doctor, and “West Wing” fans should get excited about their favorite Secret Service agent, Ron Butterfield (Michael O’Neill), getting a regular role as Molly’s supervisor.
Right now, the primary concern is connecting with at least one character on the show, because everyone has secrets and mysteries they’re concealing. We can’t trust Molly, because she’s clearly hiding something about her time in space. We can’t trust Molly’s bosses, because they may have set her up for something sinister. We can’t trust Molly’s robot son, because he’s a robot. There’s plenty of intriguing material to look forward to going forward, but there’s still some work to do before the characters truly draw in viewers.
At this stage, the show “Extant” most closely resembles at this stage is the 2009 ABC series “Defying Gravity,” which also made use of a vaguely futuristic setting and space-based mystery. That show, another summer launch, was canceled well before the end of its first season, but it didn’t have Oscar winners behind it.
What’s most enjoyable about “Extant” is the niche it fills — there’s a dearth of smart adult sci-fi on television right now, save some of Syfy’s current offerings (and based on the reviews of its newest launch, “Dominion,” “smart” isn’t a word that applies there). And it’s no surprise that Spielberg is a producer on the series, as it borrows many of the best elements of his 2001 film “A.I.” Not just the robot boy factor — instead, it’s the casual incorporation of near-future technology, the sense that this really could be our future, that makes “Extant” stand out. It’ll be fun, over the following weeks, to find out if that’s a good or a bad thing.