In space, no one can hear you whine

Defying Gravity is a soap opera among the stars


We have soap operas set in hospitals, high schools and apartment complexes, but why not one set in space? That’s the question answered by Defying Gravity (ABC, Sundays, 10 p.m.; premieres August 2 at 9 p.m.), a rather maudlin combination of sci-fi and soap opera that tries too hard to capture the seriousness of both. Former Grey’s Anatomy writer and producer James Parriott is the show’s creator, and ABC has been heavily touting Gravity as Grey’s in space. Which is a horrible idea, since Grey’s is bad enough on Earth, and Gravity does indeed carry over some of the popular hospital soap’s more annoying stylistic tics, including a somber, meaningless voice-over by the main character.

That task falls to the reliable Ron Livingston, who’s much less grating than Ellen Pompeo (aka Meredith Grey) as Maddux Donner, the reluctant captain of a six-year mission from Earth around the solar system in 2052. Donner is surrounded by a thorny knot of potential romantic trauma, including his onetime hook-up Zoe Barnes (Laura Harris), who a few years ago aborted his baby without his knowledge. There’s also the feisty Nadia Schilling (Florentine Lahme), who clearly has the hots for Donner and may or may not have bagged him in the past. Other crew members have their own relationship issues, including two whose spouses have been left behind in the control room on Earth to pine across the vast expanse of space.

Oh, and there’s a plot, too: The crew is on what appears to be a routine exploratory trip to well-known planets (Venus, Mars, etc.), but the ship has a mysterious payload whose nature is mostly just teased in the first two episodes. It’s some sort of force or entity that may or may not be an alien, and it’s guiding the mission (and the people on it) in some unexplained way. The vague references to “it” by mission higher-ups are more frustrating than intriguing, and tacking a supernatural mystery plot onto the nuts-and-bolts space-travel and relationship stuff is a little jarring. For long stretches, Gravity just seems like a really fancy workplace drama, and then all of a sudden there’s a spooky dream sequence or eerie sound from nowhere. It gives the characters’ actions a little more weight, but it also makes their bed-hopping seem even more frivolous.

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Defying Gravity

The show also pales in comparison to the extremely similar Virtuality, a failed Fox pilot from Battlestar Galactica mastermind Ronald D. Moore that aired as a standalone TV-movie in June. It, too, featured oversexed astronauts on an extended space mission, as well as a mysterious, possibly sinister presence guiding things (and cameras documenting the whole experience for audiences back home). It also wrestled much more seriously with deep ideas and existential questions, and built its mystery in a way that seemed creepy and enticing rather than irritating.

Gravity will have more time to play out its storyline—it’s an international co-production airing simultaneously in several countries, and all 13 of its first-season episodes have already been produced—so it may turn out to be more satisfying in the end. But for now, it’s a bit adrift, combining the cheesiness of zero-gravity sex with the menace of a strange, otherworldly presence in a way that does justice to neither. And like Grey’s, it’s so self-serious that it often borders on laughable. Soap operas by nature traffic in heightened emotions, but the characters are still best if they’re left grounded.


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