In describing Seth MacFarlane, the king of such lowbrow fare as the hit series Family Guy and blockbuster feature Ted, “educator” is hardly a word that comes to mind. But he is taking on such a role with Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, a reboot of the popular PBS series by the late Carl Sagan. In addition to his love for the original, which he had been a fan of since childhood, MacFarlane is bringing a lot of expertise to the Fox project. That includes animation, which will be an important component of the new 13-episode series he described the show as a “visual feast.” Scientists will get the animated treatment, and it will be used to “bring history sequences into the new millennium,” he said. MacFarlane also is lending lead-in supports to Cosmos, which premieres March 9, with his Family Guy serving as launching pad for it on Sunday nights. He sees a lot of cross-over audience from animated comedies to Cosmos and dismissed a suggestion that it would be for sci-fi fans only — or, as one critic described them, “nerds tuning in on Friday night.” MacFarlane jumped in, “And f**k you.” He said that was the reason the show was pitched to Fox. “National Geographic and Discovery are great networks, but instead of pleading to the converted, wouldn’t it be nice to broaden [the reach]?”
During his Q&A session at TCA today, MacFarlane had another quick comeback when someone suggested that he may have had to withhold some of his shows from Fox to force them to pick up Cosmos. “What do you think happened to The Flintstones?” he deadpanned, referring to his aborted reboot. Every episode of Cosmos will profile a hero from the world of space exploration, which will bring a welcome change from the current entertainment environment. “We are in the age of the anti-hero where everything has to be dark and dystrophy and depressing,” he said.
Host Neil DeGrasse Tyson spoke of his shock over the backlash to his tweets criticizing the science in the blockbuster pic Gravity. “I was surprised and enchanted how much people felt strongly about it,” he said. “That’s a good thing, people arguing about the science of a movie set in space.” MacFarlane said he also was surprised by the strong reaction to the brief killing of Family Guy dog Brian this season. “When your show is in Season 12, you can either be on autopilot or try to surprise the audience, which is what we did,” he said.
But overall, everyone stayed on message. Cosmos writer/executive producer Ann Druyan spoke passionately about the show’s message of why science matters and the hope that it will be incorporated by schools to inspire a new generation of scientists. If the reboot is as powerful as the original, that is possible. On a personal note, the Carl Sagan series was partially responsible for my decision to pursue science and get a master’s degree in physics, for which I did a thesis on physics misconceptions in popular movies (through I will never tweet about them).