In space, no one can see you conceive. That appears to be the weird but intriguing premise of CBS's high-profile summer fantasy drama Extant, a show put into play after last year's successful summer run of the network's increasingly absurd Under the Dome. While Wednesday's pilot episode (9/8c) of Extant (all that was available for review) lacks the sort of unforgettable "wow" moment provided by the severed cow in Dome's opener, the new series also seems less likely to lapse irrevocably into silly hysteria.
This futuristic (though not glaringly so) and glossy sci-fi mystery cloaks its conspiracy intrigues in domestic dilemmas that evoke sources as disparate as Rosemary's Baby, the Alien movie franchise and A.I. (the latter from Steven Spielberg, one of Extant's executive producers). Directed by Allen Coulter with an eye for elegant unease, this mother of all cosmic puzzles revolves around astronaut Molly Woods (Halle Berry, stunningly gorgeous even when first glimpsed in a state of disheveled upchuck), still adjusting to life back on Earth after a 13-month solo space mission, where her only constant companion was a disembodied ship computer (a more benign version of 2001's HAL, this goes by "Ben").
Molly seems to have it all: a loving husband, John (ER's Goran Visnjic), and an adorable if solemn son, Ethan (Pierce Gagnon), who we soon discover is the apple of his scientist daddy's eye — an experimental robot designed by John (and parented by the infertile Woods) to be programmed through human connection, without controls or restrictions, to develop an approximation of a soul. While John seeks funding for his controversial vision of A.I. evolution, Molly worries about what makes enigmatic little Ethan tick — but of more pressing concern is the ticking time bomb she's carried back from space. Because Molly is pregnant, with what and by whom and how is only hinted at in provocatively mystifying flashbacks from her year amid the stars.
Berry spends much of the first hour with her lovely face pinched in grimaces of disbelief and concerned confusion, and who can blame her. The plot is only likely to thicken as we learn more about the space agency, now operated by a private and seemingly sinister corporate agency, for whom she works — and which is keeping a tight lid on what happened during a previous solo mission that ended in a very public tragedy. When Molly starts receiving oblique warnings of a "trust no one" nature, Extant creeps further into The X-Files territory — which carries its own particular risks, since we all know how Scully's "miracle baby" storyline worked out.
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SWEDEN IS WELCOME, NOT ENGELS: You can be forgiven if your first response is "vanity project" as you begin to watch NBC's Welcome to Sweden (Thursday, 9/8c), executive produced by Parks and Recreation's Amy Poehler and starring her brother Greg Poehler in an autobiographical rom-com inspired by his own decision to move to Sweden for love. Almost as quickly, skepticism turns to pleasure as Greg reveals himself to be a wide-eyed charmer (think a less smarmy Greg Kinnear) and Sweden becomes an unexpectedly welcome and disarming diversion in a summer cluttered with noisy mediocrity. Playing accountant-to-the-stars Bruce Evans — a job that allows for celebrity cameos by Amy and, in the second episode, Will Ferrell as himself — Greg glows in the low-key comedy as he clings for stability to his beautiful, sensual wife Emma (co-writer Josephine Bornebusch), who helps him navigate unfamiliar customs, attitudes and a stubbornly impenetrable (to him) language. Luckily for us, and for the show's distinct sense of place, much of the dialogue spoken by the natives is subtitled, losing none of its wry humor in translation as Emma's family (including the luscious Lena Olin as her drolly hypercritical mother) tries to make sense of this sheepish newcomer, and vice versa.
The beguiling authenticity of Sweden is of sharp contrast to the gratingly phony nonsense on display in NBC's atrocious companion piece from Canada: Working the Engels (9:30/8:30c), a would-be Arrested Development depicting a family of unpleasantly self-absorbed misfits trying to cope after their lawyer father's death leaves them $200,000 in debt. As Jenna, the Michael Bluth-like voice of sanity who leaves her legit job to keep the family shingle afloat, Kacey Rohl (more memorable as Hannibal's Abigail Hobbs) looks as put out as we feel by being constantly subjected to the trite antics of her mother Ceil, a neurotic drama queen (a mugging and ill-used Andrea Martin, who I hope was well paid to leave her Tony-winning role in Pippin to perform double-fisted drinking gags); her sister Sandy, a fad-obsessed flake (a shrill Azura Skye); and worst of all, bad brother Jimmy, a petty crook and all-around witless schnook whose supposed charisma is only on paper, because Benjamin Arthur brings none of it to the screen.
Nothing about Engels works: the tired premise, the strained performances, the empty abyss of silence into which the groaning jokes dissipate. Here's a show that should have bucked the single-camera trend to play its corny games in front of a studio audience, not that it would ultimately have mattered. The good news: Pippin is still playing on Broadway. Andrea Martin, you're welcome back any time.
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