Sundays at 10 PM, ABC
Written by Sheri Elwood
Directed by Peter Howitt
Defying Gravity wants to be a hipper, updated version of Star Trek, but it’s more like Lost in space right now. There’s the same sense of isolation countered with innumerable, vivid flashbacks, the same menace lurking just out of sight, the sense that the characters have less freedom of choice than they appear to. I get it that this is a scripted show modeled, like Lost, on the idea of a reality show–people are dumped into a hostile, confined environment and told to survive. But the romance and mystery and thrill of space travel or exploration is totally missing. Instead, with love triangles, psychic breaks, illicit pregnancies, and desperate pasts on display, it looks like creator James Parriott (Grey’s Anatomy) is trying for a genuine space opera, as in soap opera in space. And it is really falling flat for me.
This episode started off with a long recap of last week’s pilot movie, complete with laconic narration by Ron Livingston. Whereas I usually only tolerate voice-over narration, Livingston’s slightly ennuyé retelling captured the feeling of alienation and psychological distance his character, Maddux, displays towards his fellow astronauts. The effect is to group the audience in with the astronauts, in a move which cements our identification with them even as it highlights separation. Mysterious noises convince at least one crew member that there is something or someone aboard they’re not aware of–Alien, anybody? The only really creative twist in this chopped-up storyline was the idea that the DNA of all the crew members is re-assembling itself to give all the crew members the same DNA profile. This might be an interesting idea; I look forward to seeing how it plays out. Everything else is the standard furniture of a haunted-house-in-space scenario I’ve seen in a hundred movies.
Two standout performances from veteran actors raised the production values higher than they had a right to be: Christina Cox and Ron Livingston. Cox brought passion and grace to Blood Ties a couple of seasons ago, and in this new venture her smoldering intensity gives a certain gravitas to her biologist, Jen Crane. Livingston (Standoff, Sex and the City) brings his patented brooding cynicism to a role perfectly crafted for him; he’s the down-to-earth, slightly world-weary, seen-it-all and hurt-it-all guy. His smart and vulnerable everyman is a good, solid role and I hope to see it expand as the series progresses. If it does. The one thing that might actually launch this soap/space opera would be to get him and Christina Cox smoldering at one another.
The most painful part of the show was the dumbing down of real science and space travel. Surely nothing could be more inherently exciting than launching a crew into the unknown, to explore (ahem) strange new worlds. Instead, the entire concept gets watered down to eight people on planet-wide reality TV (Truman Show, anybody?) exploring one another. Yawn. Worse, the structure of the show works against it. Perhaps it was considered edgy and daring to chop the show up into segments set on earth, set on the space ship, set in the past, whatever. The effect, however, is like throwing a script in a shredder and piecing together the result with tape. These randomly assembled scenes do not add up to a coherent storyline. Flashbacks and other tricks can open up new possibilities for a narrative, but we the audience need time to absorb them. Given the breakneck pace of dramas these days and their compressed run times, this “solution” backfires more often than not. In the case of Defying Gravity, what I wind up with is whiplash from trying to sort out all these characters, times, visions, locations, and what not.
No matter how many space suits, industrial-NASA corridors, or views of stars we get, there is just no sense of wonder, no thrill of discovery or challenge, in this tame excursion into psychological inner space. Compared to a real examination of space exploration/exploitation like this summer’s Moon, Defying Gravity is pretty weightless.