Reality Bites

Reality Bites: Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

There are a million reality shows on the naked television. We're going to watch them all, one at a time.

I've earned this.

For all the real (the misguided veneration of Giordano Bruno) and imagined (no equal time for creationists) problems with Fox's Cosmos, it has one huge advantage going for it: no Honey Boo Boo.

I've endured more than 100 reality shows in the course of this endeavor, and Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, may be the first one I've actually looked forward to watching.

Well, that and Doomsday Preppers.

Carl Sagan's Cosmos, which aired in 1980, was the first show my parents actually allowed us to watch during dinner, eating off TV trays in the living room. Or maybe it was The Dukes of Hazzard, they were similar in many ways.

In the new version, Tyson zips about in his own "Ship of the Imagination," which in this iteration resembles an aerodynamic kazoo, telling us the secrets of the universe and attempting to present the workings of the universe in the context of how they relate to human history, from a prehistoric Feral Kid drawing on a cave wall to Voyager I, which escaped the boundaries of the Solar System in 2012.

The Episode I Watched, "Hiding in the Light," examined -- what else -- the visible spectrum. As with other episodes, animated sequences bring to life the stories of scientific pioneers like Mozi, the Chinese philosopher who invented the camera obscura and whose works were nearly lost during the rise of the Qin and Han Dynasties. This is a key theme of the program, and one executive producers MacFarlane, Ann Druyan (Sagan's widow), and Brannon Braga seem to enjoy: the need for science to be free of authoritarian restrictions.

Each episode (I've watched them all to this point) also relentlessly hammers home the importance of continued scientific advancement and funding for future endeavors like space travel. The necessity of both should be obvious, but human experience proves no one ever went bankrupt betting against the willful ignorance of mankind.

Tyson does a good job summarizing the main subject, in this case the wave theory of light, moving from Mozi to Ibn al-Haytham -- considered the father of modern optical theory as well as one of the earliest practitioners of the scientific method -- to Isaac Newton to William Herschel to Joseph von Fraunhofer.

[Fun fact, I've been the Benedictine abbey where Fraunhofer essentially invented astrophysics when he discovered the rudiments of the atomic structure of the universe. He invented the spectroscope; I went to a nearby restaurant, drank beer, and clumsily hit on German waitresses. You gotta stay in your comfort zone.]

Some criticisms of the show are valid: it can get bogged down in its gee whiz visual FX, and maybe a little of the 'oomph' is lost among all the commercials. "An orphan named Joseph Fraunhofer is about to make a startling discovery. We'll be right back after these words from the University of Phoenix and Jack in the Box." All that CGI isn't going to pay for itself, you know.

Is America really ready to embrace science again? Tyson seems to think so, citing the popularity of shows like The Big Bang Theory and CSI as proof. Okay. Sure, there are still programs like NOVA on PBS, and NatGeo and Discovery occasionally rise above the morass of their usual programming to present something informative (Explorer and Planet Earth, for example). But these are few and far between in a TV landscape dominated by pawn stars and Amish mobsters.

The shows Tyson named, on the other hand, use science as a punchline or depict it in such an unrealistic manner as to mislead viewers about its capabilities. Cosmos is generating debate and attracting a moderate number of viewers -- last Sunday's episode ranked 4th behind the ACM Awards (CBS), Resurrection (ABC), and Believe (NBC) -- but its greatest strength comes from its potential to spark an interest in science in children who will grow up to pursue it as a career and help solve some of the problems we'll face in the coming century.

Let's just hope the money is available for them to make a living doing it.

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Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar