Fox Is Bringing Metaphysics Back to the Masses With a Reboot of Cosmos

Neil deGrasse Tyson teams with Seth MacFarlane, of all people

It’s an early January afternoon on the Upper West Side, just days after the Earth began heaving itself along on yet another elliptical voyage around the sun, and a polar vortex has stupefied New York with an interstellar chill. With about two hours of daylight left, sinuses are rimed with hoarfrost, the bare pate of the guy manning the lone hot dog cart is steaming, and the exhaust from passing cars looks as substantial as batting wool. From outside the main entrance to the Rose Center for Earth and Space on Manhattan’s West 81st Street, the great sphere of the Hayden Planetarium looms in its glass case like a scale model of the ice planet Hoth.

Three stories above the northern celestial pole of the planetarium, in an office that practically twinkles with the light from thousands of man-made stars (even his vest is festooned with flickering suns), Neil deGrasse Tyson is launching into what comic books might refer to as his “origin story.” As it so happens, the astrophysicist and host of Fox’s upcoming revival of storied PBS documentary series Cosmos got his first taste of the universe under the dome of the original Hayden Planetarium’s Sky Theater. “When you’re a New Yorker, there is no night sky,” he says. “You’ll see the moon, maybe a planet or two, but there’s no relationship with the night sky. So, I saw my first night sky at age 9 at the Hayden Planetarium. And it was so compelling and so much of a kind of mental baptism that I thought it was a hoax. But that was it—that was the night the universe chose me to study it.”

Years in the making, Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey represents the kind of investment in science programming that hasn’t been a fixture of broadcast television since Carl Sagan brought metaphysics to the masses with the original Cosmos 34 years ago. Subtitled A Personal Journey, Sagan’s 13-part odyssey made abstruse concepts like black holes, wormholes and dark matter accessible to viewers who didn’t necessarily have an alphabet-soup jumble of academic abbreviations dangling from their surnames like so many comet tails.

That Tyson was tapped to present the new Cosmos series is particularly apt, given his peripheral association with Sagan. As a 17-year-old student at Bronx Science, a college-bound Tyson was invited to meet Sagan at his laboratory at Cornell University. The visit made quite an impression on the budding scientist, and while ultimately he chose Harvard over the Ithaca Ivy, Tyson says the courtesy extended to him by Sagan wasn’t something he took lightly.

“I said to myself that if I were ever as remotely influential as he was, I would treat students the way he treated me,” Tyson says. “With very high respect and regard for their ambitions.”

Cosmos co-executive producer Seth MacFarlane says Tyson is the perfect host for the new series, being “the rare communicator who has the ability to talk to both sides of the room.” A space enthusiast since childhood, the Family Guy creator met Tyson through the Science & Entertainment Exchange, an initiative designed to encourage the development of more accurate scientific content in TV and film. (Tyson is seriously hyper-vigilant when quarantining science fact from science fiction. He good-naturedly tweaked Jon Stewart at the end of a 2012 appearance on The Daily Show by informing him that his “Earth is spinning in the wrong direction” in the opening credits. More recently, he took to Twitter to pick apart some of the sloppier gaffes in Gravity, a film he otherwise quite enjoyed.)

Ann Druyan agrees with MacFarlane’s assessment, commenting that Tyson appears poised to continue the mission Sagan began so many years ago. A co-executive producer and writer of the new Cosmos, Druyan also wrote the PBS series with Sagan, her husband from 1981 until his death in 1996. (Astronomer Steven Soter was a co-writer on both versions of the show.) “When Carl died, no one really emerged to inhabit that niche,” Druyan says. “He was the person who you turned to when you wanted to understand the natural and ethical underpinnings of a given issue. … No one from the scientific community jumped right in and became that voice of reason. There’s been nobody to slow the retreat into magical thinking.

“I see in Neil that same joy in connecting that Carl had … and that was definitely one of the reasons that I chose him to do this.”

Crazy Like a Fox

As Tyson searches his MacBook’s hard drive for the Cosmos sizzle reel, he acknowledges that Fox didn’t immediately strike him as a natural fit for the project. “It took me maybe 12 seconds of processing time during my first conversation with Seth on this matter when he said, ‘I have an idea—let’s bring it to Fox,’ and I thought, that’s a stupid idea. You don’t really get it. You don’t understand our mission here,” Tyson says. “And then, in the 12 seconds I’m thinking it through, I realized that this was the most brilliant idea I’ve heard. Every meaningful television-watching demographic has roads going into the Fox portfolio, so that’s where you put a science show if you want to have the biggest impact.”

Indeed, Fox plans to circle the globe with the show, which will air in the Sunday 9 p.m. time slot, following a two-hour comedy block that culminates with The Simpsons and Family Guy. The broadcast premiere on March 9 will be followed the next night by an airing on National Geographic Channel. The same day, the series will roll out on Nat Geo channels in 170 countries. 

Karl J Kaul/ Wonderful Machine; Left: Courtesy of Fox

While a highbrow science program may seem like a bit of a stretch for the network that brought us such lowest-common-denominator fare as The Littlest Groom and Temptation Island (not to mention the much more recent scripted disaster, The Mob Doctor, and MacFarlane’s own critically reviled live-action comedy Dads), Fox executives have never been shy about indulging in their more contrarian impulses. Just last week, Fox entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly told the assembled throng at the Television Critics Association’s annual Winter Press Tour that he was going forward with a long-simmering plan to do away with the radical inefficiencies of the traditional development calendar. “This year, officially for the first time, we are going to be bypassing pilot season,” he announced. “We have, in fact, been ordering series throughout the year and are currently in some stage of production on nine projects as I sit here today. That’s before I order one new pilot in this pilot season.”

Bolstered by MacFarlane’s enthusiasm for the Cosmos project, Fox Networks Group president and CEO Peter Rice decided to give the series a straight 13-episode order without so much as asking to see a frame of new footage. “Ann gave him the original Cosmos, just to freshen him up on what this project could be or could do,” Tyson recalls. “A few weeks later, he calls me back and we’re thinking he’ll agree to the one-off to see if they can attract sponsors, test the waters, dip a toe—not five toes, just the one—into the water.”

Picking up the thread, Druyan mentions that Rice took home the Cosmos DVD set to screen for his kids. “After some initial snickering about Carl’s haircut and turtleneck, they were enchanted,” she reports. “And from there, Peter just said, ‘Let’s do 13.’ He told us that as far as he was concerned, the original series was the pilot.”

Given the number of recognizable names attached to the production and MacFarlane’s financial commitment (while he did not offer specifics, Tyson says MacFarlane agreed early on to “go halfsies” on Cosmos with Druyan’s production company), the risk of committing to the baker’s dozen would appear negligible. “This is a nice novelty for Fox which, trust me, is a lot more worried about how [American] Idol’s going to do,” says one TV buyer. “But if I’m looking for those younger viewers, the guys 18-34, and I don’t want to spend $350,000 [for a spot] on Walking Dead, I could do a lot worse on Sunday nights at 9 o’clock.”

While Tyson would rightly scoff at the notion of unfavorable omens and unlucky numbers, “four” appears to have it in for Cosmos. The first four episodes of the show will have to contend with the final four episodes of the fourth season of AMC’s zombie apocalypse juggernaut, which just so happens to be the top-rated scripted program on TV. That said, the female-skewing broadcast competition doesn’t appear to be much of a threat to the core Fox demos.

For his part, MacFarlane believes that a good chunk of the audience tuning in every week for Family Guy will make the jump to Cosmos in the lead-out position. “I think there may be a lot of crossover between fans of animation and fans of science,” he tells Adweek. “There’s a lot of overlap between the genres.”

When the Stars Align

Family Guy would seem to support MacFarlane’s working hypothesis if only because the scripts are so often saturated with science and some of its more fantastic permutations. (Time travel is a particularly familiar trope, featuring in no fewer than a dozen episodes over the course of the series’ run.)

Tyson says MacFarlane’s enthusiasm for learning is genuine, and that any conversation about science is fair game for further exploration. Calling MacFarlane “a curious guy,” Tyson relates, “He once spent an entire lunch asking me questions about the Big Bang. So four months later, we learn that Stewie’s time machine actually caused the Big Bang. And at the end, I get a full title card: ‘Neil deGrasse Tyson: Science Consultant.’”

MacFarlane may not get as exercised as Tyson does about the errors that everyone else overlooks—don’t even get the man started about how the constellations splashed across the supposedly astronomically precise mural on the ceiling of Grand Central Terminal’s Main Concourse are actually backwards—but his measured baritone does get a little strained when he talks about NASA’s ignominious decline. “We are explorers by nature, we are curious … and in recent decades, that’s been starved by the inexcusable apathy when it’s come to the space program,” MacFarlane says.

Tyson believes that, for good or ill, nothing quite stirs the old pioneer spirit like an arms race. “Sometimes it takes a big move by your mortal enemy to get everyone motivated,” he says. “We set up NASA in 1958 to try to show the world that we were not going to be bested by these evil, godless commies and their Sputnik. And the same would apply today. If even an unsubstantiated rumor was floated about China wanting to build a military base on Mars, we’d have humans on Mars in 10 months!”

At once professorial, streetwise and avuncular, Tyson’s delivery and comic timing go a long way toward explaining why he’s such a frequent guest on The Daily Show, The Colbert Report and Real Time With Bill Maher. His comedy chops also earned him a cameo on The Big Bang Theory where he was taken to task for his role in demoting Pluto to a dwarf planet.

Tyson says he invests a considerable amount of time preparing for his TV appearances, even going so far as to map out the frequency with which Stewart interrupts his guests. (The trick is to get your sound bite in before the host steps all over your lines, Tyson reveals.)

With just two months to go before the launch of Cosmos, Tyson’s long-established Twitter feed has amassed 1.6 million followers. While his ancillary activities pull him away from his research, it’s clear that he gets a kick out of his unorthodox notoriety. “I’m a popular astrophysicist! How’s that even possible?” he says. “I mean, that gives me hope for the future … and the show.”

Sagan’s mission statement can be summed up by lines he read in the first episode of the 1980 series:

The Cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be. Our contemplations of the Cosmos stir us. We know we are approaching the grandest of mysteries.

From Druyan’s perspective, Cosmos allows her to build on the legacy of the work she did with her late husband, while venturing further away from the illusory comforts of our Pale Blue Dot. “The universe isn’t there to make you feel better about yourself,” she laughs.

As Tyson rises to receive another visitor, he sums up that he hopes viewers will gain from the show “a kind of a spiritual fulfillment in their understanding of our place in the universe. That ought to have value. If it doesn’t, then what are you alive for?”