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Seth MacFarlane's 'Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey' review: Basic yet beautiful

Bronx-born Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the

Bronx-born Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, hosts this scientific documentary series that follows Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage” from 1980. Produced by Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, and Seth MacFarlane. No joke. (March 9, 9 p.m., Fox/5) Credit: FOX

So what did we think of Seth MacFarlane's "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey," premiering Sunday on Fox, while hitching a ride on half a dozen other Fox-owned networks (that's called a "simulcast" ). My thoughts... .

"Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey," WNYW/5, Sunday night at 9, then Monday nights at 9.

What it's about: This 13-part series produced by Seth MacFarlane, who also does some voice work here (some of the historical figures and sequences are in anime), is a remake of Carl Sagan's 1980 series, "Carl Sagan's Cosmos," which charted the creation of the universe, planets and life and became a huge hit for PBS in the process. With a major assist from Sagan's widow, Ann Druyan and Steven Soter -- both of whom wrote the original with Sagan, who died in 1996 -- this "Cosmos" is hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, also director of the Hayden Planetarium. Sunday's opener, like Sagan's, begins beyond the stars, at the beginning of the universe, as Tyson (like Sagan) takes flight in his own "Ship of the Imagination." "It's time," says Tyson, "to journey from the infinitesimal to the infinite."

My say: Seth MacFarlane does Carl Sagan's "Cosmos?" Is this the cosmos' idea of a cosmic joke? Or is this project perhaps MacFarlane's atonement for his TV sins (and "Ted," too?) Billions and billions and billions of years of evolution, and 75 years of TV, and we all now meet at this point in space and time, whereby the guy who created "Family Guy" channels an eminent planetary astronomer and his classic TV series... What does this all mean?

Who cares. Is "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey" any good? Based on the first (and only) episode sent out for review, yeah, it's good and in some ways superior to the original. Those are, of course, the obvious "ways," represented by quantum leaps in special effects technology that transport Sagan's original vision to places even he could never have dreamed of. It's a dazzling vertiginous swirl of stars, planets, galaxies and super-clusters while the money sequence Sunday features a proto-Earth and moon rapidly accreting out of space junk and stardust. Were Sagan alive to witness this extravagant TV spectacle, he'd happily approve.

But in some ways this "Cosmos" is also inferior to the original. Sagan's "Cosmos" began with a breathtaking visual idea: What if you, the viewer, were to approach Earth from the farthest reaches of the known universe? This offered a unique cosmic perspective by placing our pale blue dot -- Earth -- within the infinite span of space and time. Accompanied to a soundtrack by Vangelis, Sagan's "Cosmos" carefully led the viewer on this intellectual journey, patiently explaining reasonably difficult science with singular clarity and compelling language. (In addition to his many talents, Sagan was also a wonderful writer.)

But commercial TV doesn't have the luxury of time, so there's a rushed, breathless quality to this finished product. Basic ideas are laid out, but they're almost too basic. MacFarlane's "Cosmos" loves pictures. Sagan's "Cosmos" loved words.

But as a cosmic tour guide, Tyson is easily Sagan's equal. He brings Sagan's passion, wonderment and intellectual heft, and because he's told this story on so many other TV series, he remains a comfortable, familiar figure, too. Tyson closes Sunday's opener with an anecdote about a 17-year-old from the Bronx who long ago visited Sagan. That aspiring astronomer -- Tyson himself -- was treated with kindness and generosity. That day, he says, "I also learned the kind of person I wanted to be." In this series, one hopes Sagan will be repaid.

Bottom line: Basic yet beautiful, "Cosmos" appears to be a winner.

Grade: B+

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