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Monday, March 17, 2014

Explore the COSMOS

Article first published as Explore the COSMOS on TheTVKing.

I rarely write about nonfiction television programs. It's not that I don't watch them; my TiVo contains season passes to Mythbusters, Strip the City, Super Skyscrapers, and our local PBS production Columbus Neighborhoods. It's just that there's rarely an episode that inspires my spirit so strongly that I must pound out 500 words or so about it. FOX's Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, which premiered earlier this week, a thirteen part redo of a Carl Sagan classic, deserves the attention, though.

Brought to us by Ann Druyan (Sagan's widow) and, of all people, Family Guy and Ted creator Seth MacFarlane, Cosmos seeks to make us think about the universe and our place in it. It illustrates complex concepts, and through many special effects, illustrates big ideas not easily seen on an individual level. It helps us to grasp the inner workings of reality, and presents a stellar history and scale a lot of folks don't know much about.

Cosmos is hosted by Neil Degrasse Tyson, the quasi-famous astrophysicist, director of the Hayden Planetarium, and frequent guest on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Typically, most American people don't know many scientists names, Bill Nye the Science Guy aside, but Neil is quickly achieving populist status. He's the face of science for many young people, personable and smart, and he has the enthusiasm to get people excited about the world around them. He's a great pick for host, in my opinion.

The number one reason to tune in, though, may be the effects. In the first episode, "Standing Up in the Milky Way," Neil flies around in a fancy, futuristic ship, taking us of our planet, beyond the Solar System, out of the Milky Way, away from our galactic cluster, and possibly removed from our universe itself. It's easy to talk about how vast and infinite space it. It's another thing entirely to see it visualized so brilliantly. It will evoke raw emotion in viewers to ponder the implications.

Yes, these representations do look fake. But they're some of the more detailed, best developed fakes I've ever seen. Little expense seems to have been spared in creating the worlds and stars, and it's a view we wouldn't ever have a chance to see any other way. For much of the hour, I was blown away by just how cool the program looked.

Cosmos also had time in the first hour to take us through the universe's creation up til now, conveyed through a typical Earth calendar year. It's a scale we can understand, and it makes the time periods a lot more manageable. An important part of any high-minded science presentation is to make it comprehensible for the masses, dumbing it down so to speak, but still getting the important points across. Cosmos excels at this.

Then, late in the premiere installment, Neil tells a very moving story about Giordano Bruno, a 16th century thinker way ahead of his time who was prosecuted by the religious establishment. This segment does portray the Catholic Church in a poor light, and had been criticized for that, but while the historical viewpoint shown may be biased, the 'bad guys' looking quite sinister, it's also fundamentally correct. Besides, the more important part of the story is to lend a human element to the proceedings, so it's not all space and science that will go over some of the heads in the audience, and it serves this purpose well.

The finale of "Standing Up in the Milk Way," in which Neil tells a very personal story about Sagan, is even more moving, and may even evoke a few tears from the more sentimental

Overall, Cosmos is a fascinating piece with a lot of digestible, important information, sure to make you think long after the screen goes dark. If it inspires you to turn off the TV one night and gaze at the stars instead, great. If it prompts you to look up and read further into the material presented, even better. But even as base entertainment, it is well done, something that should appeal to a wide viewership and make us all a little smarter.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on FOX.

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