exoplanets, origins of life, reviews, space, the universe, Whither Homo sapiens?

Cosmos, Epi 1: Epic Fail

What a disappointment.

What did I expect? It’s television. And with rare exceptions (Downton Abbey), I don’t watch television. And when I do, I’m reminded why I don’t.

Cosmos is, so far, overproduced and underimagined. It’s a mixture of David Attenborough–type tramping through motivational-poster vistas, gee-whiz CGI (which, in brazenly assuming it can depict the unimaginable, brutally diminishes it), Classics Illustrated animation, and textbookish narration, which fails to fuse into a whole, to enthrall, or to inform. In space, the tour of the Solar System is chaotic and disjointed. (The subsequent zoom-out to the galaxy, the Local Group, the Virgo Cluster, and the Observable Universe is one of the few powerful and effective moments in the episode, but the show’s hyper, ADD pace does not let it be suitably dwelt on.) In time, the textbookish narration of the “cosmic calendar” zips by way too fast and corresponds to nothing seen on the screen except a lot of generic zooming and swirling. When the dinosaur-killing asteroid hits, Neil Tyson sticks his fingers in his ears and the giant redwood trees shake a little, and that’s all; the fire and darkness that enveloped the planet and wiped out whole orders of life are neither mentioned nor so much as visually alluded to. There’s way too much reliance on Neil’s charm, which is undeniable; but his voice drops to inaudibility at the ends of sentences (do we just need a better sound system?), he hardly varies his speaking rhythm, the script he’s given is at once superficial and pedantic, and the whole thing feels rushed, as if the public had to be ooh-ahh snowed rather than trusted to have either real interest in or real comprehension of the science. And it’s all accompanied by awful, too-loud, faux-Mahler music that drowns out the narration.

The result is a creation myth for our time that seems at least as preposterous as the cosmology of Gilgamesh, and a lot less dramatic. Then there are the commercials, interrupting every 10 minutes or less with clips from equally overblown CGI movies alternating with the banality of screaming car salesmen. After a purported journey to the Big Bang you’d think there’d be some shame, or humility, or irony, about giving equal sound and fury to the latest from Samsung or Subaru.

But this is the language of our time. This is what the producers think people expect, the mainstream way they are entertained and impressed. I’ll be an old fart now and say I feel sorry for people who’ve only ever experienced this smothering of the imagination by cheap technological humbug. We are much too infatuated with our new toys and we think they render good writing obsolete. This is an era of decadent Roman excess in infotainment that has to be waited out. Oh for the sweetness of a new Dark Age. Somebody pull the plug.

In the meantime, if you want your imagination to be ravished by the new cosmology, and you’d even like to understand it just a little bit, READ BOOKS. Read Lee Billings, Caleb Scharf, Ray Jayawardhana. Read by and about the prescient visionary Giordano Bruno. whom Cosmos at least covers, but as a cartoon character.

My parents slept through most of this episode. We’ll continue watching (on the NatGeo channel next time, to see if the commercials are as bad), to see whether the microscopic world is portrayed any better than the macroscopic one.

(Apologies for the slapdash pan. It was written on stolen time, throwing good time after bad, as it were.)

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