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'Extant' And 'The Strain': One Is Worth A Look (But Don't Forget 'Defiance' And 'Penny Dreadful')

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Halle Berry in 'Extant.' | CBS

"Extant" is a big-name, high-profile production that is solid and acceptable in a number of ways.

The storytelling is briskly paced, Halle Berry is typically good in the lead role, and the "Extant" pilot contains several scenes set in space, a sight that is far too rare on TV. I can't recall the last time I saw a space-set scene on a CBS drama, but when Steven Spielberg says he wants to do a show about an astronaut and someone with Berry's stature deigns to do TV, even the most conservative network takes heed.

In "Extant," Berry plays Molly Woods, who spent a year alone on a space station; when we meet her, she's enduring a rough re-entry with her family. Sure, a year of isolation would make even the most well-adjusted person a little squirrelly, but there's more to it than that. Given that this is a sci-fi story, it's not a big shock to find out that everything didn't exactly go according to plan while Woods was orbiting Earth, and there are problems at home as well.

High-profile actress, trouble in space: If you're wondering if "Extant" is a low-budget, low-ambition "Gravity," you wouldn't be too far off. It's hard not to think about the Alfonso Cuarón film when watching "Extant," which decidedly doesn't have "Gravity's" flair, style and momentum, regardless of Spielberg's involvement (which I'd guess is minimal, given how many projects his entertainment factory churns out). This is quite clearly a TV show with a TV budget, but the first hour of "Extant" gets the job done. (Actually, the biggest mystery about the show is why critics received only one episode, given that "Extant" went into production more than five months ago. Weird.)

During the next two weeks or so, I'll be at the Television Critics Association press tour in Los Angeles, followed by San Diego Comic-Con. So I'll make an effort to see where "Extant" goes -- in part to support science-fiction storytelling on the broadcast networks -- but if it starts displaying the clunky dumbness of CBS' other scripted summer drama, "Under The Dome," I'm going to check out quickly.

That said, though "Extant" is competently made, it shares a problem with another new TV show with a big name attached. Like "Extant," "The Strain," which arrives Sunday and boasts Guillermo Del Toro as one of its executive producers, feels kind of bland and bloodless. These corporate slices of genre entertainment left me a little cold (or very cold, in the case of "The Strain"), but if you're looking for scrappy and emotionally engaging genre fare, you should try "Penny Dreadful" and "Defiance" (more on those shows in a moment).

It's not that "The Strain" fails to deliver on the grotesque imagery, but that's just about the only element that recalls the rest of Del Toro's oeuvre. What may be most shocking about the FX show is how dull, uninteresting and hollow all the characters are. Despite a great deal of visible effort, the first four episodes of "The Strain" never succeeded in making Corey Stoll's epidemiologist character even remotely compelling. Unfortunately most of the other characters are even more superficial and predictable, which made it nearly impossible to stay engaged when they began doing dumb things.

The only real bright spot in "The Strain" is David Bradley ("Game of Thrones"), who's terrific as a crusty old guy who has Seen This Kind of Monster Before. He goes around shaking his cane at these young whippersnappers from the Centers for Disease Control, who clearly don't understand the true nature of eeeeevil. The best "Strain" scene I saw did not involved disgusting fluids, creepy worms or disturbing appendages; it was a simple dialogue scene between Bradley's Professor Abraham Setrakian and a mysterious Nazi.

Nazis? Check. Sketchy billionaire? Check. Questionable shenanigans by big corporations? Check. Crusading team fighting the clock? Check. Workaholic dad with disapproving wife? Check. "The Strain," like "Extant," is basically a stew of familiar elements plucked from the horror and sci-fi realms, with a few Prestige Drama bits and pieces thrown in for good measure. Using borrowed dynamics and formulas isn't an issue, but it's surprising that both shows -- particularly "The Strain" -- don't really do a whole lot with these old standbys. The FX show is about a parasitical creature that displays hideous vitality, but unfortunately, "The Strain" is dramatically inert.

So, what about trying a couple of genre shows that probably cost a whole lot less money than the projects above but have memorable characters and an abundance of lively ideas? They can be messy, too, on occasion, but it's such a relief to experience silly moments that spring from an excess of ideas and energy, not from timidity or convenient corner-cutting.

I delineated why "Defiance" is so good in this Season 2 review, and now that I've seen this week and next week's episodes as well, I'd like to double down on that praise. This Syfy show crackles with energy and curiosity about its characters, and its mixture of wry seriousness and earnest subversion is a weekly treat. Another reason to love it, as outlined in my "B-movie TV" manifesto: It's about the difficult work of sustaining a community, not one more paean to a misunderstood lone wolf. Honestly, "Defiance" is just fun -- and yet when it needs to turn up the dials dramatically, it has no trouble switching gears.

I may be shouting into the wilderness here, but I just want it on record that Tony Curran and Jaime Murray are doing spectacular work as Datak and Stahma Tarr, a married couple and the leading citizens in one of the sub-communities within the melting-pot town of Defiance. Datak is a brutal mob boss down on his luck, and Stahma, his wife, outwardly conforms to the rigid patriarchal rules of their culture.

Sounds like a familiar dynamic, right? But Curran and Murray, both skilled at playing coiled fury, bring twisted vitality into the Tarrs' relationship in every scene they play. These are people who thrive on resentment, secrets and power trips, but express their fury in radically different ways. Stahma has the demure manner of a geisha but is every bit the Khaleesi under the surface. All in all, "Defiance" is doing an admirable job of adding dimensions and levels to all of its characters; for instance, if you liked Miss Rosa on Season 2 of "Orange Is the New Black," you'll likely love the prickly Doc Yewll on "Defiance," who gets a much deserved turn in the spotlight soon.

But I've saved the best for last: If your summer viewing roster starts to look sparse, hunt down "Penny Dreadful" and binge as if your life depended on it.

Here is a show that was open and even gleeful about its pilfering from any number of literary and theatrical sources, but creator John Logan approached these tropes, characters and themes with serious compassion and irresistible energy. "Penny Dreadful's" first season explored ideas about guilt, love, impermanence and evil with such passion and thoughtfulness that it was impossible not to fall under its spell. The Victorian setting was just right for a story about repressed desires and buried pain, and if the show occasionally rambled a bit too far afield (i.e., the rather predictable Frankenstein-Caliban story), the show's weird and lovely heart made its occasional excesses easy to forgive.

As for the cast, wow. Eva Green was spellbinding throughout and showed tremendous range, especially in the heartbreaking seventh episode, and Timothy Dalton's charismatic presence skillfully anchored the show. As the quicksilver Vanessa Ives, Green got the showier set pieces, but Dalton's brooding presence was a wonderfully calibrated counterweight to the show's wilder side.

And if you thought Josh Hartnett was on board purely as a bit of eye candy, "Penny Dreadful" revealed that he is every bit as capable of passionately inhabiting a well-drawn character as his castmates. All in all, this Showtime horror show didn't get half the hype of "True Detective" or "Fargo" -- perhaps due to a critical mindset that assumes a horror show can't be a top-tier contender -- but "Penny Dreadful" was, by far, 2014's most welcome and generous surprise.

Long may these scrappy underdogs reign.

"Extant" premieres 9 p.m. ET Wednesday on CBS. "The Strain" premieres 10 p.m. Sunday on FX. "Defiance" airs 8 p.m. ET Thursdays on Syfy.

Ryan McGee and I discuss "The Strain," "Penny Dreadful," "Extant," "Married," "You're the Worst," "The Bridge," and "Masters of Sex" on this week's Talking TV podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below.

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