Wednesday, July 1, 2015

REVIEW: 'Extant' - Molly's World Radically Changes as a New Alien Threat Emerges in 'Change Scenario'

CBS' Extant - Episode 2.01 "Change Scenario"

Six months after her life unraveled and dark secrets were revealed, Molly is confined to a psychiatric hospital when she learns of bizarre deaths that sound eerily similar to those she witness in space. When she escapes to investigate, she crosses paths with JD Richter, a determined cop who just signed on to the case.

Extant is miraculously back for its second season. It is a tad surprising given how low the numbers dropped last summer. And yet, there must be some way that CBS profits from producing the show. So, the show is back for a new season somewhat wiser but not completely without problems. I enjoyed the first season more than most. But even I'm willing to admit that it was frustratingly erratic with not a whole lot of substance other than "robot boy and alien boy are special" and "cryptic supernatural things create mysteries." None of it completely worked but there was still some sense of plot momentum that kept me engaged with the storytelling.

Season two promises to make a ton of changes to the basic premise of the show. That is immediately felt in this first episode back which can only half-commit to those drastic changes because it has to set up a reality in which they are capable of happening. Goran Visnjic wasn't a horrible piece of casting for the first season. John Woods was just such a poorly crafted character that he simply didn't know how to make exciting. There were a lot of big ideas but they never came together in a way that made the smaller moments of bonding between his family seem all that meaningful. Molly's entire family is basically taken away from her over the course of this premiere. With John, it is actually death. It's clearly an act of murder where someone wanted him gone so that he wouldn't be a threat anymore. I'm hoping that mystery doesn't linger too long. And then, Ethan is returned to his human body but immediately stolen by the government out of fear of what he is capable of doing. Again, placing so much narrative importance on a child who is deemed special is never a great foundation for emotional devastation or the overall mystery. The show does back away from that somewhat. But Ethan is still a very important character - as is Molly's other son, the half-human, half-alien hybrid.

It is more interesting to have the government being the corporation with major influence over the future of the Humanichs Project than last season's cryptically vague and nefarious Yasumoto Company. That storyline never worked well as Yasumoto never made any sense as a character and only seemed to buy into the show's incessant need of being more over-the-top science fiction. Grounding the storytelling a little bit with the government taking over out of fear allows for a certain amount of agency for all the characters. It leads to John's death which is a welcome development. It forces Molly into a psych hospital for a little bit. The hospital story was overall a big contrivance to make her seem even more like a crazy conspiracy theorist even though she was praised for her heroism at the very beginning of the premiere. But again, that offered up forward momentum. It was certainly a lot better than her finally discovering that John and Julie had an affair while she was in space. That romance was a horrible, nondescript story last season that never went anywhere. Sure, it will probably lead to more animosity and tension between the two women now that they'll be fighting other Ethan. But that also allows them to be much more than simply romantic interests for a bland and boring guy.

But there is still a central premise connected to aliens and the supernatural at the heart of the show. Sure, it's frustrating watching the show continue to be much more fascinated by the mysterious alien kid than the audience is. It was a promising development when he had a seizure and was seemingly killed off the show. He represented a plot thread that wasn't entirely necessary in order for the big grand alien mystery to be central to the show. But it was also an expected twist for him to be alive and even older in the end. Molly was so paranoid as to whether or not he was actually dead. It brought too much attention to his fate which basically made the premiere ending twist predictable. Sure, it's a horrifying prospect to have him seducing girls just to get them pregnant with more alien spawn. But that will only work if the new actor playing the role is more compelling to watch than the child version.

And then, there's the season's big new addition in Jeffrey Dean Morgan as bounty hunter JD Richter. It's strange that his first scene comes out of nowhere in the middle of the episode. The audience is just suppose to go along with the fact that he is going to be a new regular character this season. And that scene is of him trying to have sex with a woman before his robot interrupts them with the exposition dump of who this new character actually is. It ends with him promising to meet her again on Friday. But who really cares if that happens or not? The important thing about JD is that he'll be a new ally to Molly for the immediate future. He gets the sense that she knows something that can help with his new investigation even though there's the major red flag of her escaping from the psych hospital. He is willing to listen to what she has to say. That quality may not continue once she begins ranting about some big government conspiracy to keep her silent in the wake of a pending alien invasion of Earth. But it is enough for him to break her out of the hospital for at least the next 72 hours.

The partnership between Molly and JD will probably be the backbone for the season. It's probably not too early to start shipping them as a couple. Of course, there will need to be some kind of respectable period of grieving considering John just died. And yet, he was a boring leading man and a cheater which makes things easier for Molly if she wants to be seduced by JD. That may or may not happen this season but it's presented in a way that makes their dynamic more important than anything the show did previously. Molly does work as a character because she is scrappy and capable of finding agency in increasingly complex situations. She stopped the alien spores from coming down to Earth. That's a huge accomplishment. Plus, she is capable of breaking out of the hospital as soon as she learns about the mysterious deaths happening throughout the city. She is a character capable of getting stuff done and protecting herself. It would have severely crossed a line if that one nurse had actually raped her. That's just not a storyline that Extant could possibly do well. So thank goodness they didn't even try. JD came to her rescue. Something that shouldn't become a standard for the show. Molly still needs to go around and smash car windows after all.

Overall, this was a very complicated season premiere that tried getting rid of the old as quickly as possible to make way for the new. At times, it did feel like too much to truly understand what the intended effect was suppose to be. The episode kicks off with an in media res opening with Molly getting her pills at the hospital and the audience suppose to wonder why she is there in the first place. That decision in regards to structure was a little unnecessary. It gave so much importance as to how and why she ended up in that place only for the answers to be not that important as she was able to break free twice. And yet, the show did plant enough seeds in this premiere to suggest that things will be more simple and better in the future.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Change Scenario" was written by Liz Kruger & Craig Shapiro and directed by Dan Lerner.
  • Camryn Manheim's character, Dr. Sam Barton, is also written out but with just a throwaway line that basically guarantees that Molly never wants to work with and/or see her again.
  • Julie using the government's need for patriotism in order to take Ethan away from Molly should be a better story arc for the character. But honestly, nothing could be worse than her failed romantic life of the first season. This way she at least has some importance to the people around her.
  • What does Molly think has happened to Ethan during the big six month time jump where he was taken away and she was sent to the psych hospital? Does she know that Julie has him? Or is the affair still the only thing she hates her for?
  • Morgan's charisma is capable of making his character interesting even though it's still largely just the done-to-death archetype of the damaged police detective who prefers to work alone.
  • David Morrissey is also one of the season's new additions as an army contact for Molly who was there for her when she was telling the "truth" to the court but couldn't help when Ethan was taken.