Tuned In: Sci-fi effects elevate new 'Cosmos' on Fox

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Carl Sagan's "Cosmos," an early 1980s PBS phenomenon, gets an update with "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey" premiering at 9 p.m. Sunday on Fox and simultaneously on National Geographic Channel, FX, FXX, FXM and other Fox networks. (Subsequent episodes will continue to air at 9 p.m. Sunday on Fox and will be re-aired at 10 p.m. Monday on National Geographic Channel.)

Former PBS mainstay Neil deGrasse Tyson ("NOVA," "NOVA ScienceNow") hosts the new "Cosmos," which is written and executive produced by Mr. Sagan's widow, Ann Druyan, who also was a writer on the original series.

Seth "Family Guy" MacFarlane and Brannon "Star Trek: Voyager" Braga are the other two executive producers.

No "Family Guy" characters appear in Sunday's premiere of the 13-episode series. However there is a spaceship -- a cross between a silver surfboard and Boba Fett's Slave 1 from the "Star Wars" movies -- that Mr. Tyson rides through the solar system. Some science purists may chafe at this sci-fi element but it does nothing to distract from the science education baked into "Cosmos." If special effects -- and really the whole show is wall-to-wall CGI -- can be used to help educate, why not use a device that makes the science go down easier?

In addition to zipping through the solar system, "Cosmos" also relies on animation to tell the stories of the earliest human scientists. These scenes may not go down well with the anti-science crowd -- cardinals of the Inquisition are shown burning books over an early scientist's insistence that the Earth revolves around the sun -- but bully for "Cosmos" for its willingness to stand up for scientific knowledge.

In Sunday's one-hour premiere, Mr. Tyson discusses the role of science -- to test ideas, build on ideas that pass the test and discard those that don't, question everything -- and ends with a personal tribute to Mr. Sagan.

The new "Cosmos" collaboration between Mr. MacFarlane and Mr. Tyson came to be after a lunch where Mr. MacFarlane's opening question was, "How can I make a difference in science in this world?"

"And I said, 'Is this Seth MacFarlane? Is this the guy who illustrates Stewie? Is this the same guy?,'" Mr. Tyson said during a January Fox press conference. "That was my first indication that he had some deep sort of genetic roots of wanting to make a difference in this world."

Producers considered taking the revived "Cosmos" to several networks, including PBS, but once Mr. MacFarlane entered the picture, the focus shifted to Fox.

"There's a tremendous overlap between the 'Cosmos' audience and the Fox audience, because 'Cosmos' is about opening the door to the widest possible audience to entertain them, to uplift them, to make them feel the great, the awesome power of the scientific perspective, and I don't see any contradiction here," Ms. Druyan said. "When Carl Sagan was alive, we wrote for Parade magazine. We weren't trying to preach to the converted. We wanted to evoke in people, who might have even had hostility to science, a sense of wonder or to excite people who thought that science was just too challenging to dream about the universe of space and time."

The show's presence on Fox also highlights the different camps within the larger Fox corporation. While some talking heads at Fox News Channel may be hostile toward science, Fox Broadcasting is making a big bet on science with "Cosmos."

"In the 1970s, I think that there was probably a higher degree of respect for science, of hope about the future, and the kind of future-oriented vision," Ms. Druyan said. "We had just had our greatest achievements under our belt: the Apollo program, the Voyagers were being sent out into the furthest reaches of the solar system. ... Something which changed very dramatically sometime perhaps around the year 2000 when suddenly there was a public hostility to science. You could see it in many different manifestations, a sudden retreat on evolution and on the acceptance of other scientific facts, and so I think we began to turn inward, and our vision of the frontier was not as compelling as it once had been.

"The good thing is that the pendulum is now swinging back our way," she continued. "We have the Internet. We have these coalescing communities of people who are interested and that group I think is greater than it ever has been before."

Ms. Druyan said the new "Cosmos," like the original, attempts to take the story of the universe and the stories of people who made scientific discoveries and tell them in a way that's informative and entertaining to the general public.

"There are some echoes from the original series, but this is 13 completely new hours that is not, in any sense, a reboot or a recreation of the original series," she said. "It ranges from Earth to as far as we can see in the observable universe, to down a black hole, to a bear's ovaries, to the lives of some of the greatest scientists whom you've never heard of, who struggled in some cases, gave up their life in the service of wanting to know a little bit more about nature and the universe."

Mr. MacFarlane said he appreciated the use of different media to tell the story in the original series, so that variety has been brought to the new "Cosmos." Those animated segments on scientists are the most noteworthy for the graphic novel-style of animation.

"If you asked us the question about why 'Cosmos' now, a central reason is that we are of a generation that grew up with heroes, particularly the Apollo astronauts. And for our kids, there aren't enough science heroes. He's one of them," said executive producer Mitchell Cannold, gesturing toward Mr. Tyson. "But there are all of these others through the history of civilization that are unsung, and quite a few are women, whose stories have not been told. So each and every episode tells one of those stories, and that's central here."

Fans of the original "Cosmos: A Personal Voyage" take note: It will be re-aired 12-6 p.m. Saturday and 12-7 p.m. Sunday on National Geographic Channel.

Space show

"Cosmos" won't be the only space show airing this month. On March 14, National Geographic Channel debuts "Live from Space" (8 p.m.).

Soledad O'Brien hosts the two-hour special, which features astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Koichi Wakata, who will give viewers a tour of the International Space Station and conduct experiments.

Fox shakes up schedule

In a sign that acknowledges failure, Fox will move Greg Kinnear's legal drama "Rake" to 8 p.m. Friday next week, replacing it on Thursdays at 8 with the 12th season of "Hell's Kitchen."

"Rake" takes the place of "Kitchen Nightmares," which will return later this year.

Daniel Tiger visits Pittsburgh

A costumed Daniel Tiger will make his first visit to Pittsburgh for Be My Neighbor Day March 22 at four YMCA locations around the region. The event, sponsored by United Way of Allegheny County, The Fred Rogers Company and WQED, encourages neighbors to come together and help one another at Baierl Family YMCA (Franklin Park), Western Area YMCA (Moon), Penn Hills YMCA and Thelma Lovett YMCA (Centre Avenue).

Families are also encouraged to bring a new or gently worn sweater to donate at the event. There is no cost to attend. Details at bemyneighborday.org.

Palmer doc on Golf

Cable's Golf Channel will tell the story of Latrobe native Arnold Palmer in a three-night documentary, "Arnie," airing at 10 p.m. April 13-15.

The film will look at how Mr. Palmer revolutionized the sport through interviews with more than 100 people. "Arnie" also will include Palmer family home video that has never been seen by the public.

Channel surfing

Sunday's super boring Oscars telecast was a ratings winner in spite of itself, drawing an average 43.7 million viewers, making it the most-watched Academy Awards telecast in 14 years. ... "Storage Wars" returns for its fifth season at 9 and 9:30 p.m. March 18. ... VH1 canceled scripted series "Single Ladies," which will air its last episode March 24. ... NBC is replacing Saturday night reruns with NBC's "Dateline: Saturday Night Mysteries," airing 8-10 p.m. beginning this week. ... Comedy Central renewed sketch comedy "Kroll Show" for a third season. ... WQED's "QED Cooks" (10 a.m. Saturday) cooks up an "Italian Wedding Feast" with Carmela and Jolina Giaramita, chefs at Mount Washington's La Tavola Italiana. ... Verizon's FiOS TV now allows customers to rent or own complete seasons of some TV series, including "Breaking Bad," "Mad Men," "Game of Thrones" and "Nashville." ... WQED president Deborah Acklin has been elected to the board of trustees of the Association of Public Television Stations and to the board of the Public Television Major Market Group.

Tuned In online

Today's TV Q&A column responds to questions about "Being Human," "CBS This Morning" and WPXI's news set background. This week's Tuned In Journal includes posts on "Bates Motel," "Those Who Kill," "Sirens" and "House of Cards." Read online-only TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.

This week's podcast includes conversation about the Oscars telecast and "Those Who Kill." Subscribe or listen at http://old.post-gazette.com/podcast.

TV writer Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook for breaking TV news.

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