Commentary: Tyson's 'Cosmos' has not been impressive

March 23, 2014 

There have not been many television series in recent years that have gotten much more attention before they premiered than the new version of "Cosmos."

You no doubt know Neil deGrasse Tyson, the most well-known American scientist of his day -- it's approaching cliché to call him a "rock star" -- is hosting the new series, based on the influential Carl Sagan PBS series from 1980.

Just about everyone who has any interest at all in science, including a lot of people who first became interested because of the Sagan series, has tuned into the first two installments of the 13-part series.

Not everyone is impressed.

If you've ever seen or heard Tyson being interviewed, you know that he's charming, forceful and witty, and that he can instantly infect any listener with his passion for science and cosmology.

Jonathan Sabin of Bradenton's Local Group of Deep Sky Observers has met Tyson, and said he's a "gigantic presence."

"The guy is one of the most engaging people I've ever met," Sabin said. "He walks in and he just owns the room."

On "Cosmos," though, Tyson comes off as a stiff, even bland. He's reading someone else's words -- specifically, those of Ann Druyan, Sagan's widow and the co-writer of the original "Cosmos" -- and so far it's not working.

"Let's just say that Neil DeGrasse Tyson is not as his best when he's reading from a script surrounded by all these CGI graphics," said Jeff Rodgers, director of Bradenton's Bishop Planetarium. Rodgers worked with Tyson at the Hayden Planetarium in New York.

But even though Tyson's charisma is muted by the format, that's not what's been irking me the most.

It's been three and half decades since the original series aired, and the amount we know about the universe has exploded in that time. No one knew in 1980 that there were any planets orbiting any stars other than the sun; now we know there are thousands. In 1980, people didn't know that there was water any place else but on Earth. Now we know that water definitely exists or probably exists on at

least half-dozen or so planets and moons just in our solar system.

The new "Cosmos" hasn't talked about any of that.

"I was hoping that it would bring up something from the past 34 years of discovery," Sabin said. "A lot of the discoveries have been extraordinary."

Rodgers and some the staff from the South Florida Museum, which houses the Bishop Planetarium, watched the first episode in the planetarium. They kept an eye on Twitter and Facebook, ready to answer any questions that their followers and friends may have had. But the information was distressingly basic.

"So far," Rodgers said, "the first episodes have not provoked many questions."

Rodgers also pointed out that the first episode spent a lot of time on conflict centuries ago in which a scientist was persecuted by the Catholic Church. By focusing on that so much so early, he said, the show probably encouraged some religious viewers to turn it off, thinking the show would be an us vs. them kind of thing.

Still, Rodgers and Sabin are hopeful for the series.

"I can't say I'm disappointed," Sabin said, "because there are 11 more episodes to go."

Rodgers said he'll keep an eye on it, figuring that planetarium visitors will be bringing up topics that the show mentions.

"It's a platform," he said. "If it's too elementary, if it doesn't give people all the information they want, that's where we come in."

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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