Show of the Week: Extant

When CBS made a 13-episode order for Mickey Fisher’s debut script last year, the Eye Network had grabbed one of the most anticipated shows of the 2014-15 season.

The script for Extant had been gaining traction on Hollywood lots after first-time screenwriter Fisher had entered it into a writer’s competition, where the mix of futurism, technology and family themes caught the eye.

Soon Fisher (pictured above), an East Coast playwright, actor and director who had moved out West to chance his arm in Hollywood, had signed to an agency, found a manager and owned one of the buzziest scripts in town – one that Steven Spielberg and his Amblin Television imprint would soon identify as a winnner. “I went from the basement to the penthouse in a matter of weeks,” Fisher recalls.

Following a busy period in which most of the major networks and a number of film producers sniffed around the project, Fisher signed a straight-to-series deal with CBS on his 40th birthday. “That was a great way to ring in a new chapter in my life,” he says.

CBS Television Studios and Spielberg’s Amblin are to coproduce the series ahead of a summer season launch, just as they did with 2013’s breakout hit Under the Dome. “[The straight-to-series order] is an exciting thing because you get a real shot,” says Fisher. “In the feature world, you’ll work on something for years to get it off the ground. Even if you’re Martin Scorsese, you can develop things for twenty years and it won’t see the light day. This is going straight to television.”

Extant’s chances of success improved even further when it was announced Hollywood A-lister Halle Berry would take the lead role – her first TV lead in more than two decades (with more to come after she entered into a two-year first-look deal with CBS Television Studios). Berry plays an astronaut returning to Earth after a year-long solo mission, trying to reconnect with her husband and son. Her experiences in space and at home change the course of history.

“It’s high-concept but the core of it is about one extraordinary family at the epicentre of these massive changes happening to the Earth. The family is a microcosm: if they survive, humanity survives. That’s something people relate to – they’re going root for this family and they’re going to root for Halle Berry,” says Fisher.

“It’s really a story of a family we can all relate to,” adds Greg Walker, the prolific US drama producer who will be showrunner. “The best way to go is to look at the strength of Mickey’s writing, which is rooted in character, family and emotion. It’s an intriguing vision of the future in which the problems are very much the problems of today – staying connected with family in an advanced world.”

Much has been made of parallels between Extant and the Stephen King adaptation Under the Dome, which returns to CBS this year after stellar ratings in 2013. Both shows are 13-episode straight-to-series orders that CBS sells globally. Both are science fiction (in itself unusual for a broadcast network) and have had Steven Spielberg take an active executive producer role, which he doesn’t do for all Amblin shows, and both are emblematic of the emerging trend in commissioning originals for the traditionally quiet summer period.

Additionally, Amazon has near-to-broadcast streaming rights for Extant, just as it did with Dome.

“It’s going to be fun to have that Under the Dome mystique,” says Fisher. “We were very fortunate to come up in its wake. Dome is like the oldest child – it went through the hard upbringing – so we have a real special position as a show in that sense.”

He describes Extant as being a broadcast show at its core. “I believed that from the moment I began writing,” he says. “It doesn’t employ a lot of what the cable networks go for – it’s not dark and there isn’t a lot of violence. It does share some of those cable themes, but the popcorn side of it is what really makes it right for broadcast. Hopefully we can extract a little bit of both.”

CBS executives have been “very brave in trying to stretch their own horizons by giving us the leash to expand into areas they’ve not done before”, he adds. “They’ve been encouraging us to exploit that while keeping those big broadcast values at the centre. But the challenges remain the same – how do you tell this human story against a genre background?.”

Walker says the answer is a “big overall plot” with room to manoeuvre as the show develops. “To have this powerhouse [Berry] appearing on our television show makes us feel lucky, but it’s also like we just got the V12 engine. It’s going to be fun to see what she wants to do with this role.

“Then there’s the Stephen Spielberg factor – someone who can help us draw out the popcorn, the wonder and the awe. Plus, we get to be on a network that has the best consistent audience and promotional machine behind it, so it’s ours to blow.”

Production begins today (February 11) ahead a launch on the Eye Network at 9pm ET/PT on July 2.

The show: Extant
The producer: CBS Television Studios, Amblin Television
The distributor: CBS Studios International, CBS Television Distribution
The broadcaster: CBS (US), Amazon Instant Prime Video
The concept: Halle Berry is an astronaut attempting to reconnect with her family after a long period in space, though her choices ultimately affect the future of Earth