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Can 'Cosmos' Save Science Television?

Photo of Matt Brennan By Matt Brennan | Thompson on Hollywood! March 31, 2014 at 11:25AM

With his nondescript blazers and mild manner, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is an unlikely radical. But make no mistake: in an age of evolution skeptics and climate change deniers, the defense of science he levies as the host of "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey" is nothing short of revolutionary.
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Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey"
Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey"

With his nondescript blazers and mild manner, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is an unlikely radical. But make no mistake: in an age of evolution skeptics and climate change deniers, the defense of science he levies as the host of "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey" is nothing short of revolutionary.

Of course, a similarly grand sense of purpose accompanied Carl Sagan's "Cosmos: A Personal Voyage" when it premiered on PBS in 1980, eventually attracting 400 million viewers in 60 countries. That the iconic original resulted in no definitive triumph for factuality might lead the discerning critic to offer a more cautious assessment of the revamped "Cosmos," but its very existence -- in the midst of Sunday's packed primetime landscape, no less -- is a bold statement. We're here, we're peer-reviewed, get used to it!

Beyond public television's old guard ("Nova" and "Nature" on PBS, "The Blue Planet" and "Planet Earth" on the BBC), much of what passes for "educational" science programming is at best rank sensationalism, if not flagrantly unethical. Allegations of animal abuse directed at Animal Planet's hit series "Call of the Wildman" may constitute an extreme case, but it's clear that executives prefer reality TV's seductive promise of easy money to the more challenging work of rational investigation. And lest you consider "Shark Week," "Ghost Hunters," and Dr. Oz niche expressions of the obsession with pseudo-science, tune to the networks' nightly news reports. Last bastions of "the mainstream" (or what's left of it), they're half consumed by dramatic images of wildfires, landslides, blizzards, tornadoes, and floods, with barely a mention of climate change. When Bill Nye the Science Guy is the culture's foremost advocate for the scientific consensus, that culture is on dangerous ground.

With all due respect to Mr. Nye, Tyson, of sonorous voice and serious bearing, possesses gravitas, and "Cosmos," created by Sagan's widow Ann Druyan and Steven Soter (with executive producer Seth MacFarlane among others), strikes a tone of authoritative, impassioned intelligence. Indeed, from the beginning of the first episode, Tyson's narration emphasizes the importance of the scientific method, which is the series' Rosetta Stone. "Accept these terms," he says, "and the cosmos is yours." At heart, "Cosmos" is a clarion call of logic and experimentation in an anti-intellectual age.

This article is related to: TV Reviews, Genres, Documentaries, Cosmos


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.