“Shelter” is a significant drop in quality after last week’s episode of Extant—one that hits what feels like a dozen different clichés on the way down. After Molly’s ex-alcoholic father started drinking again in the least climactic, most predictable way possible, I lost a lot of faith in the episode, and not much that happened afterwards redeemed it.
Still—I thought about giving it a D, after the show sunk to insipidity. But the last third somehow redeemed it—or at least leavened the general boredom of the first two thirds. The problem Extant is having here is the same I noticed a few weeks ago, in my review of “Extinct”—there’s no emotion at the center of these characters’ stories. The reason that the first two acts of the episode drag on for so long is that the character drama is almost totally irrelevant—especially when the character in question in robot boy Ethan.
Let’s back up a minute.
There’s a special ghetto in dream heaven for characters in mediocre dramas who exist to play a very small, very specific part and then are quickly banished to limbo or a convenient death. (Some of you may recall my interest in Sandrine from Hostages.) The thing is, every time these ciphers show up, they’re oddly fascinating—precisely because they’re so bland and toothless, so clearly here just for the plot arc.
Molly’s father Quinn, played by Louis Gossett, Jr. (better known as Oscar from Boardwalk Empire), is just one of these characters. He’s got about four scenes in this episode, and three establish what the audience is supposed to feel about him by the end. Quickly now, the episode says: Build up backstory. He was a bad father. Molly has a weird relationship with him. He repeats his stories… because he had memory issues… because he’s a recovering alcoholic… who just fell off the wagon. Four broad strokes, and the show asks us to fill in the rest.
I feel bad for slagging on Ethan when the actor, Pierce Gagnon, is a bright-eyed cute kid who is just doing what he’s been told to do—play a robot. But Extant decided that the best way to spend a good chunk of its episode tonight was to put a character that purposefully has no affect with a character that purposefully has no character and expected actual drama to arise from it. (Comedy, I’d buy. Drama? Yawn.)
Fortunately, the rest of the episode is stronger—in fact, in the last third, when the episode gets mostly silent (because everyone is imprisoned), it becomes almost brilliant. The moment where Molly stumbles into the operating room and then collapses is staged like a live play—and though that’s normally jarring in a television show, the style of it suits the mounting horror of the episode. Similarly, the moment where Ethan is tazed is really quite moving—that little detail where he’s looking up at the stars, recalling his mother and grandmother’s story of stars, as he’s about to lose consciousness, is well done. It spins with more subtlety what the whole subplot with Ethan and his grandfather was getting at—just because the boy is a robot doesn’t mean that he’s not also a boy, as evidenced by his sensitivity to pressure and scrutiny. There’s enough richness in the basic family dynamic between Molly, John, and Ethan that even the kidnapping story has some weight—I found myself briefly furious with the local police for not even attempting to track Ethan, just because he’s a “robot,” indicating that perhaps Extant is succeeding in brainwashing me about the upcoming robot apocalypse.
It’s dragged down, though, by the slowness of Yasumoto’s plotline (which is still too mysterious to have meaning, though it has become appreciably creepy) and the essential dullness of two married characters waiting for a DNA test to come through. Weirdly, what also took me out of this episode was the change in location—another middlebrow drama cliché that takes the cast to somewhere else in an attempt to continue to be interesting. The sleepy fishing village didn’t have the trappings of the future that I’ve come to expect from Extant. I think the reasoning was to bring the characters away from the city (Los Angeles? Vancouver?) to an island that would be theoretically safer because it was remote, and then prey upon them with huge paramilitary installations that can be easily hidden. It’s fine, but it’s not great.
Mostly, I’m struck again with something that has occurred to me in a few other dramas I’ve been watching this fall: It’s not funny. Last week’s quip about Ethan learning the dance of his ancestors actually made me laugh out loud, but I didn’t get even close to anything like that this time. Extant’s characters are all very serious because the future is serious business, sure. But with a little more looseness, Extant could find a way to have fun with its premise.
- Goran Visjnic’s little montage fixing the circuitry in the DNA tester is a cute, nerdy, very dad-like montage. He seems very happy with himself when he’s done. Sexy programmers!
- I’m very fond of constellations, so maybe I let myself get goopier than usual over Molly and Ethan. But the story was told well (and mostly accurately, which is better than most mythos that makes it to TV).
- The early scene with two Russians and Yasumoto made it hard to understand anything that was happening (I am not good with hearing distinct words, let alone accented ones). Did they say that the goopy substance was from a meteor?
- Cliché count: Well, let’s see. There was the alcoholic falling off the wagon, the hot streak lost due to pressure, the “we’ll be safe here NOPE.” Did I miss any?
- On the plus side? A lot of not-clichés. So far, Sam and John have both kept Molly’s secrets. Her father didn’t sell her out (“They got here just before you did.”). Even that last scene with Quinn and Ethan is a little unexpected: Quinn is not all bad because he had a shot of whiskey.
- I sort of love that Yasumoto’s lab is on a ship.
- Based on the promo for next week, it looks like Camryn Manheim is about to flip the switch from supporter to total enemy. I’m down with it—she can make that work.
- Sonia’s speculation corner: The baby is a clone of Yasumoto, right? Right?