I’m beginning to see why Halle Berry was excited about this lead role in Extant. It’s possible the actress also had some influence on how her character Molly is portrayed—like a lot of leading stars, she’s a co-executive producer on her own show. There’s something unconventional about Molly, and further, about the way her personal life is depicted on-screen. Something that seems removed from the conversation that the rest of us are having about the way women are portrayed on television.
Years ago I read a column by A.O. Scott on Meryl Streep’s inimitable, unparalleled acting, written after she received her 16th Academy Award nomination for Julie & Julia. Streep’s daughter Grace Gummer is in Extant, too, but something about Streep’s style rings true for Berry, instead: As Scott observed about Meryl, the viewer is always aware that the character is Meryl Streep, even as they are entranced by her skill.
Ms. Streep’s Julia Child is never anything other than a performance, a fusion of two strong personalities rather than the absorption by one into another. You never forget that you are watching Meryl Streep inhabiting a version of Julia Child, and instead of distracting you from the truth of Julia, this awareness is what enables you to understand her. It is our familiarity with Ms. Streep that makes her exploration of a more private Julia Child both credible and exhilarating.
Halle Berry is not Meryl Streep, for a variety of reasons. But I can see that she has a certain, immutable Berry-ness to her performances, either a persona that is carefully calculated to be “natural”—such as Julia Roberts in all of her romantic comedies—or just who she is herself.
What strikes me about Berry in Extant is that there’s very little of Molly’s character that is actually written. We have to interpret a lot of her character based on her actions, and because she’s being used as the subject of an experiment, she’s not always in control of what she’s doing. It’s interested me where and how she’s settled into what we as viewers might expect of a wife and mother, and where she’s been more unconventional.
Particularly what I like about her character is that the show is unafraid of having her be many things at once—“Nightmares” alone engages with her as a friend, an employee, a wife, a mother (in two different ways), a scientist, and a rogue agent. We have no reason to think she’s good at or interested in a lot of those things, but she navigates the spaces anyway, and that’s kind of intriguing.
What I’m trying to get at with this extended digression about Molly Woods is that Extant is playing a different game from most other shows I’ve seen on television. It hasn’t really caught on with viewers, primarily because it is a little staid and monochromatic (though ratings whiz Joe Adalian observed that it’s the fifth-highest rated show amongst African-American audiences). But it kind of seems to not care. Extant is telling a weird little mystery that only a few people will see all the way through to the end, and though there are flaws with its approach, you kind of have to admire the show’s tenacity to being a tiny, odd little science-fiction melodrama starring Halle Berry on CBS.
“What On Earth Is Going On?,” last week’s episode, is legitimately kind of brilliant—it’s the best the show has done, and a lot of that brilliance stems from mining Molly for material, using the crucial disconnect of Halle Berry from the other actors to play up Molly’s disconnection from everyone around her. I found it weirdly kind of canny, that no one around her would believe her pregnancy, because credulity is so much of the acting game, too. (Molly does some acting in tonight’s episode, too, playing some kind of double-blind game of duplicity with Sam that feels like a very accurate depiction of workplace friendship.) And honestly, I would never have expected Molly to be as maternal and loving towards Ethan as she’s ended up being—at first, the show cast her as a kind of skeptical, evil stepmother, but she really loves him.
Extant is a 13-hour long slightly narrative commercial for the future and how awesome it might be. There will be even cooler gadgets and prosthetics and a robot boy and space. Because: Molly Woods is caught in a terrible conspiracy of sorts that has taken advantage of her body, but you know, she really doesn’t seem that upset by it. No one seems that upset by anything, except for Michael O’Neill looking at the hologram of his daughter, and Michael O’Neill can sell stoicism while grieving better than a lot of people. The result is a story where nothing feels like it really matters
I’m at a turning point with this show, where on one hand there’s a story here that is legitimately interesting, twisting in ways I don’t expect, and on the other there’s a lot of unmitigated blandness. I’m probably going to keep watching Extant because it’s so easy to watch—but I’m not sure that there’s all that much to say about it right now. “Nightmares” offers the most answers to Extant’s mysteries, and they’re not that interesting, are they? Instead of aliens, it’s an alien virus, and we’re learning that Yasumoto and Sparks sent Molly to space as bait for the virus, so that they’d find out what sorcery was happening in her womb.
Call me crazy, but as much as I enjoy fluffy storytelling, what tends to intrigue me more about any given episode of Extant are little moments like the one where Julie got ready for work in the morning and screwed her prosthetic legs on after taking a shower in a floating dish. Or Molly looking at the orange juice in her pitcher tilt sideways as her husband Marcus says goodbye. Extant is in this fascinating space between genre and character drama, and it’s fun to watch it try to figure out what to be—and perplexing, too.
- Readership for this show hasn’t really been… extant (gotcha), which is one of the reasons I took last week off and am covering two episodes at once this week. I will follow along with the season and drop in if and when it’s appropriate, but I don’t think weekly reviews make sense for this show right now. It’s been a pleasure watching with all of you, and I fully intend to be back for the finale, at the very least. Sorry to everyone who was expecting a review last week. What’s On Tonight lost my request to inform you of what was going on. It feels like such a deeply pointless week to be writing about television, but thanks for bearing with me.
- As usual, a lot of questions were raised this week. Like: What’s the deal with Julie’s handsome fake-arm bro? Why did Ethan come back from his coma able to rearrange algorithms for funzies? And what on earth is that drug that Max from Homeland got into?
- Sonia’s speculation corner: This show and Helix were the same show the whole time.
- Everything else aside, I am continually excited by all the nods to technological advancement in the show. (The phones! The cars! “I think you should turn auto-drive back on.” No, Halle Berry, that sounds terrifying!!!) I love the idea that Ethan can’t dream because they haven’t programmed him for REM—besides being a surprising reality of the robot-boy life, it’s also a nod to Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, which is always a good thing.