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Defying Gravity: I Really Seem To Like Cancelled Sci- Fi Shows, Don't I?
There's something about shows cancelled before their time that is oddly fascinating. More often than not, there is something wrong to cause the cancellation-- the concept is stupid, the writing is bad, the characters are unlikable. Sometimes, the creators simply run out of money.
But then there are shows that should have worked, but for whatever reason never found their audience. These shows are well-written, well-acted. and full of all sorts of interesting ideas, and that's what makes it so infuriating when they get cancelled.
Such is "Defying Gravity," a 1-season ABC show which, from what I can tell, was criminally both under-promoted and mis-advertised. ABC apparently delayed purchasing the show until only 3 weeks before it was supposed to open, and then marketed it as a sort of 'Grey's Anatomy in Space," which is both inaccurate and quite possibly scared away people who may have actually liked what it actually was (a sort of hard-science interplanetary "Lost"). I honestly had never heard of this show when I picked it up on a whim at the library, but I would have watched every single episode on TV had I known about it.
The show takes place about fifty or so years in the future, as the international space mission Antares is preparing to set off on a 6 year long tour of the solar system. Suddenly, two of the crew, Rollie Crane (Ty Olsson) and Ajay Sharma (Zahf Paroo) are detected to have build ups of heart plaque, and are replaced by Ted Shaw (Malik Yoba) and the improbably named Maddux Donner (Ron Livingston), our main character. Donner and Shaw were on a previous disastrous mission to Mars, which ended up being forced to leave two astronauts stranded on the planet (including Donner's girlfriend), and both served as instructors to the current astronaut team: biologist Jen Crane (Christina Cox), who was expecting to be on this voyage with her husband Rollie; pilot Nadia Schilling (Florentine Lahme), who had a rather possessive "friends with benefits" relationship on Earth with Donner; doctor and psychiatrist Evram Mintz (Eyal Podell), a former alcoholic still dealing with guilt from his tour in the IDF; payload specialist Paula Morales (Paula Garces), a devout Catholic who spends most of her time attempting to capture events for viewers back home; theoretical physicist Steven Wassenfelder (Dylan Taylor), a goofy layabout who seems to take being an astronaut a lot less serious than anyone else; and geologist Zoe Barnes (Laura Harris); whose one night stand with Donner in her first year of training resulted in a secret shame she hides from almost everyone.
The team try to work together, but things are complicated thanks to the presence of a ninth passenger on the Antares, a mysterious entity referred to as "Beta" by mission commander Mike Goss (who was also on the Mars mission with Donner and Ted) and Ted's mysterious wife Eve, who represents the corporation which poured several trillion dollars into the Antares mission. The true mission of Antares revolves around Beta, which was dug out of the plains of Peru, and which seems to be sending out signals to other objects on the other planets in the solar system. Beta also seems to be able to cause the crew to hallucinate and change their bodies, down to their DNA. The struggle to deal with each other as well as complete both the missions they were assigned and the new one involving Beta will challenge the crew, and only time will tell whether they will succeed.
Which makes it all the sadder the show only lasted 1 season. The writing is fairly smart, the characters are interesting and well-written, and the plot twists and secrets are fairly well managed--for instance, the existence of Beta and what it looks like is revealed about midway through the season, along with at least a hypothesis of what it's trying to do. All of this makes "Defying Gravity" seem like a show that deserved a better chance than it got.
The show is comparatively hard sci-fi. While the ship is going faster than it really should, artificial gravity is given a hand wave (although it at least has an explanation), and there is instantaneous communication between the ship and mission control, it seems like the writers have done their research on what an astronaut's life is actually like, and there is a sense of authenticity to both how characters act and how the mission itself is run. The show also takes the interesting strategy of cutting back and forth between the ongoing storyline of the astronauts on the Antares and five years earlier when they were in training, often with the two storylines commenting on each other. This is generally well balanced, with neither storyline overwhelming the other.
I liked almost all of the characters. Goss is a bit of a jerk, and therefore hard to like, but that's to be expected with his role. I also disliked Nadia, who came off as being unnecessarily bitchy and a bit irritating in her constant horndoggyness (the astronauts are supposed to wear patches that suppress their libido, but Nadia apparently refuses to wear hers). Jen gets a bit excessively mopey as the story goes along, but that's to do with her character arc, and it's generally acceptable. Paula gets a bit weird as the story goes along (especially after the discovery of Beta, which causes her to go a bit loopy and start spouting off about the Rapture), but it generally makes her fascinating to watch rather than annoying. Also, her prim and proper demeanor when played off against the sloppy and immature Wassenfelder works amazingly well. Zoe is also perfectly cast, as Laura Harris is able to communicate both Zoe's surface sunny demeanor as well as her internal darkness. Ron Livingston does well as leading man Donner, a guy who feels guilt about leaving his girlfriend on Mars to die and who subsequently has feared attachment, which does not work in his favor. Also great are Zahf Paroo as Ajay and Ty Olsson as Rollie, who get moved to the Mission control room to replace Donner and Ted. Both are adorably dorky and sweet (although this is more obvious on the part of Ajay), and I loved seeing both of them on the show, although neither gets in the spotlight as much as the main characters, naturally.
I really liked this show, which had great potential as an interesting combination of space opera-esque space drama and "Lost"-style mystery drama. I am only thankful that the show's creator was willing to lay out where he was planning to take the show, as it lessens the blow a little bit (although now I wish I could actually have seen the plot he described). A great little show, which deserves greater acclaim. Definitely check it out if you've got the time.