I always knew would be here.
— Maddux (Ron Livingston), Defying Gravity
It had become the focus of everything. It was all I could feel, all I could think about. It blotted out the rest of my face, the rest of my life. Like the zit had become… the truth about me.
— Angela (Claire Danes), My So-Called Life
“My old man calls space travel a fool’s game,” sighs astronaut Maddux (Ron Livingston). “He says human beings are 60% water, they eat, sleep, defecate, can’t follow directions, and explode like piñatas when exposed to the vacuum of space.” Maddux actually wants to go back into space, which you know because he looks longingly at a TV news report on the team about set to take off on a six-year mission to seven planets. He and his drunken father (Charles Haid) are tightly framed and deeply shadowed, their conflict emphasized by a shallow focus that leaves on blurry and the other sharp: dad looks surly and drunk, Maddux hurt and oh so resentful.
Maddux’s feelings about his dad (pretty humdrum, after all) soon give way to a more profound despair, revealed in flashbacks of his last space flight that went tragically wrong. Ten years ago, in 2042, Maddux was the pilot of a landing vessel on Mars: his face appears in another close-up, this time aghast as he’s commanded to leave behind two fellow crewmembers, in order to salvage the very expensive mission. No wonder he’s all bent out of shape over not being selected for the current mission, much longer and more expensive ($10 trillion). He’s got some redeeming to do.
And so… Defying Gravity, which premieres 2 August on ABC, goes on to grant Maddux a chance. Good thing, because his needs are vast, both melodramatic and action-heroic. Not only must he repair his personal legacy (“We’re not getting away from it are we,” he asks a then-and-now teammate, Ted [Malik Yoba], “Mars is gonna haunt us for the rest of our lives”), but also abandon grumpy dad (“I don’t know if you’re gonna be here when I get back,” he says by way of goodbye; “Pour me another before you leave!” mumbles dad, still mad the kid didn’t make good on his real talent, baseball: “You had the sweetest slider I ever saw”). Maddux’s personal stakes are exacerbated by bad blood between Maddux and his bottom-line-minded commander from that other mission, Mike (Andrew Airlie), doubts regarding his competence, conveniently and repeatedly voiced by Trevor (Peter Howitt), a Brit reporter who can’t shut up about Mars, and oh yes, some horribly messed up history with sorta-maybe girlfriend and fellow crewmember and zoologist Zoe (Laura Harris). When they begin sharing the same nightmare-fantasy — she’s walking naked out of the spacecraft’s airlock and he’s floating outside in his spacesuit, yelling “Noooo!” — you know they’ll have plenty to work through over this long, long mission.
To ensure you understand the magnitude of all this emotional mayhem, Maddux helpfully narrates in generically navel-gazing voiceover: “I’ve always been one of those people who believe you create your own destiny, and through a few bad decisions, I’ve certainly made mine,” or again, “We carry the baggage of our past, our fears, our superstitions, our failings, but we also carry our hopes and our dreams, the hard lessons learned from our lives.”
Lesson one: don’t fret about not getting on the mission when you’re the star of the show. After the angst initiated in the first scene with dad, Maddux and Ted help to monitor the launch from mission control not quite joining in the ritual cheers that ripple through the room when all goes well. They’re called up when something goes wrong with two astronauts on board the Antares — the same something. This crisis is framed by a couple of Lost-ishly cryptic exchanges between Mike and boss Eve (Karen LeBlanc), in charge of the mission and also, oh dear, Ted’s wife. Apparently, they’ve neglected to tell the team that they’ve been chosen by an entity called “Beta,” an entity whose unknown motivations oblige Eve to make blandly absurd pronouncements like, “We’re in uncharted territory here. This is what it wants,” and… cue portentous theme music, “It has a lot more say in this mission than we do.”
It’s unclear whether Beta has more in common with Desmond’s incessant button-pushing, the “pure chaos, pure evil” of Event Horizon or the sheer brilliance of Jeremy Davies’ skittery hands in Solaris, but it’s clearly a device to bring trouble. This may mean exacerbating the soapy stuff or it may mean relief from same. Beta may or may not be behind the emotional meltdown of the crewmember who “tested the most stable,” Ajay (Zahf Paroo), or the predictable flirtations of German pilot Nadia (Florentine Lahme), who makes tedious play after play for Maddux. Beta may be instigating the Horror Movie 101 voices Zoe keeps hearing, or the apparently very bad idea Ted has at the end of the second hour. Zoe’s accidental expulsion from the ship in a leaky spacesuit leads to the sort of emotional-existential calamity that typifies Defying Graviity. As Maddux prepares to retrieve her, he makes what seems a helpful suggestion, “Conserve your air.” Her comeback (“Is that a euphemism for ‘shut up’?”) indicates that the show leans a little too hard on annoying battle-of-the-sexes repartee, leaving the whole space travel thing as backdrop.
Thus has it ever been. With glaring exceptions like the original Twilight Zone, science fiction-ish TV series tend to focus on inner space more than outer. And so, along with his increasingly addled and acting-out crew, Maddux goes forth, ruminating and reflecting. “Life isn’t always fair,” he says, “Failure can be rewarded, merit can be looked at like a disease. Sometimes I think the only natural selection happens in a Petri dish, but it’s in a Petri dish. That’s not really natural, is it?” No, Maddux, it isn’t.