Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for May 13th, 2014

The limits of the Cosmos

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Cosmos

I hate to admit it, but I’m getting a little fed up with Cosmos. For the past two months, I’ve tuned in faithfully every Sunday night, and there are elements of the show that I still adore: Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s warmth and gravitas, the willingness to honestly present such issues as natural selection and climate change to a wide audience, and the overall ambition of the entire production. Watching the premiere, I was convinced that it would the alter the lives of countless smart young kids, and I still hope it will. In its small, tactical details, however, it’s also shown itself to be weirdly cautious. About half of every episode is devoted to an animated reenactment of the life of a great scientist—Halley, Newton, Annie Jump Cannon—and while I applaud the effort to ground its ideas in the haphazard, messy way in which discoveries are made, in practice, the segments fall back on the laziest of narrative formulas about genius at work. And given the intelligence of the creative team involved, which includes Tyson, Brannon Braga, Ann Druyan, and Seth MacFarlane, the result can’t help but feel slightly condescending, as if they didn’t trust their viewers to be engaged by revelatory scientific ideas without a healthy spoonful of the sugar of human interest.

Of course, movies and television have always had trouble depicting the act of creativity, whether in art, science, or other fields. For every work that yields genuine insights into what it means to think and create for a living (The Red Shoes, Amadeus, Crumb) there are a dozen more that give us the same scenes of the misunderstood artist or scientist, the eureka moment that somehow arises directly from the drama of his or her personal life, and the final moment of vindication, preferably accompanied by a slow clap. Cosmos, which has proven itself to be highly imaginative in other respects, jumps into these clichés with both feet. Occasionally, the approach yields rich dividends—as in the episode recounting the extraordinary career of Clair Patterson, which I’m sure is already being worked up into a biopic by some enterprising screenwriter—but more often, we’re treated to endless scenes of stiff figures in cravats chatting about the day in the lab. Sunday’s episode, for instance, devoted endless minutes to Michael Faraday’s childhood speech impediment and the workplace politics at the Royal Institution, while giving the substance of his insights only the most passing of glances.

Cosmos

The result is something that could easily have been dramatized by actors on a soundstage, or even in a radio play, which only underlines how many opportunities have been wasted. If Cosmos had given us Patrick Stewart playing William Herschel in a wig, we would have laughed—so why is it any more compelling, or less stilted, in animated form? This is all the more true because animation, in theory, is a medium of limitless potential when it comes to conveying difficult abstract ideas. Occasionally, we get the sense that Cosmos has blown most of its budget on spectacular computer effects from earlier in the season, so it falls back on the economical expedient of showing us a cartoon, with periodic cuts to Tyson strolling through London. But it costs the same amount of money to show the inside of an atom, the heat death of universe, or the train of thought inside Faraday’s head as it does to give yet another scene of two men chatting in a nineteenth-century office. The only difference lies in the amount of imagination or ingenuity the show is willing to expend. And for a show that bracingly celebrates the lives of those who thought in revolutionary ways, it’s dispiriting to see how little consideration seems to have gone into the way it tells its stories.

Obviously, it’s a miracle that a series like this is airing on a major network at all, let alone on Fox, and there’s no way of knowing what outside forces have shaped or limited the show’s approach to its material. I’m sure there was plenty of pressure to make it more accessible, more familiar, more like what we’ve seen before. Yet I don’t think there was ever a chance that its stodgy segments would turn the series into a ratings juggernaut or water cooler show—”Did you see what they did to Giordano Bruno last night?”—while a less conventional approach might have had a far greater impact. As it stands, I can’t believe that many of the show’s sober little reenactments would have made it out of the writer’s room if it weren’t for the cloying sense that they were somehow good for us, like the educational filmstrips so savagely parodied on The Simpsons. Science teachers will be pressing the play button on Cosmos in classrooms for decades to come, but I wish the show had aimed for more. At its best, as when it shows us the lives and deaths of stars, it hits notes that no other series on television can reach. Far too often, though, it leaves us with nothing but its integrity and good intentions, which isn’t enough to make it fit to survive.

Written by nevalalee

May 13, 2014 at 10:05 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

May 13, 2014 at 7:30 am

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