Words: James Ekron
“We hunger for significance, for signs that our personal existence is special and look for it in a grilled cheese sandwich or comet.”
There is one reason you should watch Cosmos over any other show: you will learn something. Sure, New Girl is fun but Schmidt doesn’t really serve as a good repository for knowledge, does he? Most shows either put a choreographed gloss over reality or take us to the unreal. Cosmos attempts to bridge television’s unreality with the stories of our own creation which are too real to be believed. It’s sort of like a Discovery Channel documentary meets Bear Grylls’ rough and ready explanation to the cosmos and should not be missed.
In the 1980’s Carl Sagan was a tall, skinny astrophysicist who wanted the stars to be as present in the public consciousness as the war in Vietnam or the mini skirt. His show – an early attempt at edutainment- became somewhat of a cult, following the explosion of the internet, calling for a reboot. Cue Neil De Grasse Tyson’s entrance (he is famous for being the “Whoop Whoop we got a bad ass in here” meme and is also a renowned astrophysicist) who has taken over the reigns as the shows presenter. In part, the show is a reflection of the symmetry in Tyson and Sagan’s relationship as Tyson once visited Sagan as a student in pursuit of his passion and is now the presenter of his old mentor’s show.
The show uses Tyson’s narration, cartoon animation and CGI to act as a classroom for the masses. Complicated topics such as the creation of the universe are represented by a Cosmic Calendar – with the Big Bang representing January 1st and all human society as the last second of the last-minute on December 31st. Dogs are used to discuss selective breeding. Isaac Newton’s fury at the rebuke of his work is drawn as him standing over a portrait he throws of his enemy into the fireplace of the Royal Society. Where science would have images, Cosmos has animations. Where history would tell stories, the show voices and draws them. It is truly the most engaging form of education on television today. Of course, none of what the story seeks to tell is new, most of it is actually trying to catch us up on the parts of history we don’t know. However, the show’s executive producer Seth McFarlane (creator of Family Guy and composer of the song ‘We Saw Your Boobs’ for the Oscars) knows what audiences want to see and Neil knows what audiences need to see.
Between them is a show that delivers and informs being both visualised and researched. You aren’t just watching, you are learning, and that has to be the most utility you can ever get from television. Ideologically, the show doesn’t work very hard to hide its disdain for religion. McFarlane/Cosmos bashes Catholicism, mysticism and ignorance alike to take the stance of the Royal Society’s motto: ‘Nullius in verba’ – take nobody’s word for it. As Tyson states in an episode “Our ancestors wove brilliantly imaginative stories but they can bring us no closer to the stars than our dreams.” The show has already come under attack for not presenting creationism as a viable alternative to our genesis, however, Tyson believes this to be a waste of time as “You don’t talk about the spherical Earth with NASA, and then say let’s give equal time to the flat Earthers.”
With no real stars (the Hollywood not Virgo Supercluster kind), popular soundtrack or promises of surprise cameos with twist endings the show doesn’t appear to be that appealing. Hopefully, over time, its resonance with audiences will create a loyal fan base who can’t wait for another week’s travel with the ‘Ship of the Imagination’. In the meantime, we are treated to a truly utilitarian use of the television which surprisingly manages to entertain us at the same time. You won’t necessarily finish the episode with warm, fuzzy, feels but you will leave with a mental splinter that festers long after the final punch line has receded.