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'Defying Gravity' on ABC

TELEVISION REVIEW

Astronauts are sent on a six-year mission to visit all the planets in the solar system.

July 31, 2009|ROBERT LLOYD | TELEVISION CRITIC

Ron Livingston, from "Office Space" and "Band of Brothers," leaves Earth this weekend in "Defying Gravity," a sci-fi series premiering Sunday on ABC. I will not be the only observer to remark on its coincidental superficial resemblance to "Virtuality," the pilot by Ronald D. Moore and Michael Taylor ("Battlestar Galactica") that Fox recently ran as a one-off TV movie. Each is set around a near-future space mission that confines its characters -- some with prior issues and entanglements -- in a relatively small space; in each, a mysterious force guides events; and each uses TV broadcasts back home as a narrative device.

Still, the basics of the tale -- the haunted spaceship story, broadly -- have been rattling around for quite a while. The more productive comparison might be to "Lost," where a small group of people are stuck out in the middle of nowhere, the unwitting playthings of some greater intelligence, or force, or fate. And there are lots of flashbacks too.

Livingston, an actor of attractive, sometimes seedy solidity -- he's like a less jolly Tom Hanks -- plays Maddux Donner, who 10 years before the main action was forced to abandon two other astronauts on the surface of Mars. It's hard to tell what lasting effect this has had on him, or on fellow spaceman Ted Shaw (Malik Yoba), who was with him at the time. He seems to be doing OK, though it is possibly no coincidence that neither he nor Shaw has been selected for a new, six-year mission to visit all the planets of the solar system. Which doesn't mean they won't be going.

Creator James Parriott has a long history in TV sci-fi and fantasy -- he created "Misfits of Science" and "Forever Knight" and wrote for "The Bionic Woman" and "The Incredible Hulk" -- and more recently worked as an executive producer on "Grey's Anatomy" and "Ugly Betty," which makes this show's mix of space opera and soap opera practically preordained. Like "Grey's," "Gravity" is fond of the philosophical voice-over, with Livingston's Donner the resident Meredith: "We can find redemption in the simplest acts of humanity; I've never heard of a robot or a probe that was able to do that."

The producers -- the show is an international co-production, based in Canada, with Fox TV Studios the local partner -- have saved money by making Earth 2052 look pretty much like Earth 2009. You'll be glad to know that, if this really is the future, there's nothing in your closet you won't be able to wear 40 years from now, and you won't need to invest in velour shirts. Sexual attitudes don't seem to have advanced much either -- it's twice suggested that rookie astronaut Zoe Barnes (Laura Harris) is gay because she's not interested in Donner. And abortion, unless I'm misreading this, seems to have become illegal. I don't know where that's leading exactly, if anywhere, but once in space Zoe hears a baby crying.

The budget has gone into the spacecraft -- the constructed interiors, the computer-generated exteriors -- and all the outer space, which looks good enough that you never think about it not being real. The human element can be less convincing, however, with many of the characters flat or opaque, the dialogue a tad artificial. Some bits are overstated, others feel undercooked.

Still, if you're in the mood for some outer space, I wouldn't warn you away. Livingston and Harris work well together, and though it's too soon to know whether this will go anywhere interesting, it's also too soon to say it won't. I do wonder what's coming.

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robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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'Defying Gravity'

Where: ABC

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-14-S (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with an advisory for sex)

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