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Monday, August 10, 2009

We Watch It So You Don't Have To: "Defying Gravity"

With the world of cops, doctors, forensics specialists, lawyers and even paper salesman well exhausted on television, it's no surprise that ABC literally looked to the stars for its next profession to tackle on the small screen. The astronauts of the network's newest prime time soap opera "Defying Gravity" -- set about fifty years in a future that doesn't look all that different from today -- are unfortunately as preoccupied with their intricate love lives as they are with exploring the solar system. The show is more "Grey's Anatomy," then "The Right Stuff" -- and that's disappointing because the premise of the show is promising.

Helmed by creator James Parriott, who also served as an executive producer on "Grey's Anatomy," there's plenty of maudlin music, nauseating voiceovers and pointless relationship drama to make the "Grey's" comparison. Despite being turned off by these features (seriously, could they have at least disguised the plot about the rookie who has a one-night stand with her boss just a little better? It's straight of the Meredith-McDreamy playbook on "Grey's"), the sci-fi and fantasy elements of the show are actually quite interesting if only they had a bigger role in the plot.

Background: It's the year 2052. Abortion is illegal. Cash has apparently been replaced by some sort of electromagnetic equivalent. But other than that, nothing much has changed. Beer is still beer. We haven't yet invented transporters or colonized any planets. Eight astronauts aboard a spaceship called the Antares are on a six-year sojourn around the solar system, but there's a deeper mystery about a force that's driving the mission that only a few of the crew members are aware of (it's like "Lost" meets "Star Trek"). Weird things keep happening on the ship and there's something in Pod 4 that freaks the mission commander Ted Shaw (Malik Yoba) out to the point that he starts acting sort of like Jack Nicholson in "The Shining" just before the part where he starts going around with an ax. A lot of the show is devoted to flashbacks to the crew's training and how they met, but that's definitely the boring part.

The characters: Ron Livingston (of "Office Space" and "Band of Brothers" fame) plays square-jawed pilot Maddux Donner with the same intensity he brings to all of his roles, silly and serious. In an attempt to redeem himself for a failed Mars mission a few years ago during which he and Shaw left two astronauts behind, Donner plays the role of the tortured playboy for much of the show's two episodes so far. Enter geologist Zoe Barnes (Laura Harris) with whom Donner has a one-night fling that leaves her pregnant and contemplating an illegal abortion. They might be the most boring couple since Meredith and McDreamy but I'll give them a chance to redeem themselves. The rest of the crew is a hodge-podge of nationalities and one-dimensional characters: biologist Jen Crane (Christina Cox), German Nadia Schilling (Florentine Lahme), Israeli doctor Evram Mintz (Eyal Podell) and Paula Morales (Paula Carces), whose main role seems to be videotaping the mission for the millions on earth to see. Also, if they're trying to be all cosmopolitan and stuff, would it have hurt to find a Russian to add to the crew? Seriously, did Russia evaporate or something fifty years in the future because the idea of an international space mission without a Russian cosmonaut on board is sort of stupid.

The good: The only thing to keep me watching through the 2-hour premiere is the promise of a deeper sci-fi mystery. A secret force -- something with the ability to control the mission -- begins to show its shadowy presence by (we assume) giving two of the astronauts identical heart murmurs. Only a few aware of what this force or thing is, including the mission control commander Mike Goss (Andrew Airlie), and they seem deathly afraid of it. Then there are the mysterious incidents -- a hatch blows Zoe out into space without her touching the release button -- that may or may not be related to this force/thing. It's just too bad that the show downplays the suspense angle for a campier, soap opera narrative.

The bad: Between Donner's Meredith Grey-esque voiceovers, the incessant heart-to-hearts between Jen and Zoe about men and just the pointless crescendos of music (not to mention a sex-in-space scene straight out of "Moonraker"), I just kept waiting for the mystery storyline to snap me out of my annoyance/boredom. The best TV romances are the ones that are secondary to the main plot, where the primary characters have chemistry, not forced awkward tete-a-tetes about men and women staying friends after flings. Although there are plenty of science fiction shows out there, I've been waiting for a straight-up drama about the space program in some fashion "The Cape" was on air in the mid-90s. Why sully it with romantic drivel I could get by watching "Private Practice?"

Conclusion: If only this show had pitched itself as "Lost" in space (get it? I'm so clever) rather than "Grey's Astronomy," I might actually continue watching it. The premise is great, but the approach is deplorable. The source material for this show came from a BBC docudrama called "Space Odyssey" about a massive spacecraft that went on a tour of the solar system, but "Defying Gravity" has managed to strip that source of all its educational material and focus solely on the characters to its demise.

"Defying Gravity" airs on ABC on Sundays at 9 p.m.

--Malavika Jagannathan,

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