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Review: ‘Extant’ pregnant with possibility

  • San Francisco Chronicle
  • Published Friday, July 4, 2014, at 3:07 p.m.

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‘Extant’

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday

Where: CBS

If you’ve snagged Halle Berry to star in your new TV drama, what else do you need?

That’s a tough one to answer about the new sci-fi family drama “Extant,” because CBS allowed critics to see only the pilot of Mickey Fisher’s promising new series, premiering Wednesday.

As Tracy said of Hepburn in “Pat and Mike,” “There ain’t much meat on her, but what’s there is cherce.”

“Cherce” may not be enough to make a series work in the long run, but it’ll do for the pilot as astronaut Molly Watts (Berry) returns from a 13-month solo stay in an orbiting space station to discover she’s inexplicably pregnant.

Almost before you can make the obvious connection to “Alien,” we’re caught up in Molly’s family life and how she will spill the news to husband John (Goran Visnjic), not to mention how she can be pregnant when she was entirely alone for 13 months. Her friend and doctor, Sam Barton (Camryn Manheim), can’t explain it either, but the fact of the pregnancy is indisputable.

The Wattses already have a child, their “son” Ethan (Pierce Gagnon, a mini Brent Spiner), a lifelike android John has created. John and Molly each have complicated feelings about Ethan. John, a futuristic Geppetto of computer science, believes that treating Ethan as human and, more important, as their biological son, can instill human emotions in him.

Molly is making an effort to behave like Ethan’s real mother, but she can’t quite make the necessary emotional connection with him. Yes, Ethan is learning emotions, but as an android, does he really have the tools to deal with them? And how will he react when he learns he will have a human brother or sister in several months? He’s already exhibiting some disturbing playground habits.

There are more questions than answers in the pilot of “Extant,” which, in this case, is a good thing. The seeds of dramatic conflict have been planted, and we’re going to come back the next week to see how all of this plays out.

Something did happen in space, that much we know because we saw it. Or did we? And even if what we saw wasn’t a hallucination, what is actually gestating in Molly’s womb?

Although the series title is pretentious (or sounds like the name of a laxative – take your pick), “Extant” makes good use of Berry’s skill at portraying a likable, apparently average woman suddenly having to deal with extraordinary events or circumstances. The script shortchanges her when it comes to reacting to the news of her pregnancy and how she is dealing with whatever she thinks happened in space, but that’s because Fisher doesn’t want us to know too much just yet.

The rest of the cast is fine, although Visnjic and Berry have little chemistry. He seems an odd choice to play her husband at this point, but he does OK portraying an obsessed scientist with an obvious God complex.

Gagnon’s is the most memorable performance in the pilot, making Ethan the most interesting character. The young actor is able to make Ethan enigmatically placid at one point and turn on an emotional dime a second later. Holding your own while sharing screen time with an Oscar winner isn’t the worst way for a kid actor to get some visibility.

It’s easy to see what attracted producer Steven Spielberg to Fisher’s project: It’s both science fiction and family drama. That combination hasn’t always worked for Spielberg’s TV projects, but with the care Fisher has put into his script, and having an A-lister as the show’s star, it’s easy to have great expectations for “Extant.”

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