There’s so much to unpack in Neil deGrasse Tyson’s reboot of “Cosmos” — it’s basically the story of the entire universe — that it’s difficult to know where to begin.
It’s gorgeous, for one, with real footage and CGI imagery intertwined in a way as to make you believe the thing was filmed on location in space.
DeGrasse is great, too, a Bronx-born scientist with enough TV time — he made his name defending science from troglodytes on shows like “Real Time with Bill Maher” and is an ardent debunker of pseudo-science like creationism and intelligent design.
But to me the big story is the show itself, a real science program that assumes scientific method, evolution, the Big Bang and climate change as prerequisites. It’s a big deal because the show airs on Fox, which owns a news network that has the highest concentration of viewers who don’t believe in these things, and routinely gives platforms for politicians and shills who deny scientific fact for political and personal gain.
This incongruity is nothing new. The Fox entertainment division began racking up hits decades ago with shows like “Married… with Children” and others that pushed the envelope of taste even as the news network courted a decidedly different demographic. It’s called playing both ends, and it’s how Rupert Murdoch built an empire. This is the next iteration of that same cycle.
“Cosmos” owes its existence to the bawdier side of Fox — Seth MacFarlane, the guy who makes “Family Guy,” perhaps the most adult cartoon on primetime network television, is executive producer.
MacFarlane’s risen to prominence on the strength of his cast of animated characters; he’s also an avowed atheist and champion of the enlightened left, often working the same talk-show circuit as deGrasse in support of his causes, which include LGBT rights, legal weed and unions.
He’s made an absolute fortune for Fox, and he used his considerable leverage to get “Cosmos” going.
It tells “the story of us” from a definite point of view — one backed by scientific theory and consensus, and it dismisses the concerns of the Flat Earthers — both the original ones and their modern counterparts — with clever writing and sound reason: Take a simple set of facts, test ideas by experiment and observation, build on those ideas and question everything. “Accept these terms,” deGrasse says in the first episode, “and the cosmos is yours.”
And now, three episodes in, it’s a genuine hit. My 13-year-old called it “probably the best TV show I’ve ever seen.” And he doesn’t care about anything.
The cognitive dissonance came on when we were watching the first episode together On Demand. Interlaced between an animated segment about Italian monk and philosopher Giordano Bruno, word of Gallileo’s excommunication and even a cameo by President Obama touting the importance of science was a commercial for the other Fox, the news channel, with promos for hosts Bill O’Reilly, who thinks intelligent design should be taught in schools, and Sean Hannity, who doesn’t believe in climate change.
Seems to me the last thing Fox News wants is its viewers watching “Cosmos,” which in its second episode succinctly explained evolution and why it’s real.
That alone undermines most of the candidates who regularly appear on the network. The third episode, “When Knowledge Conquered Fear,” might wipe out most of the rest.
And that’s the most amazing thing: In the current state of American thought, “Cosmos” is more subversive than “Family Guy” could ever hope to be. The show thus far is a televised manifesto of modern scientific thought. If it can do for the public discourse what “Family Guy” did for “bird is the word,” my 13-year-old son may be right. This could be the best TV show ever.
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