Members of the series’s team, from left: Mitchell Cannold, Brannon Braga, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Seth MacFarlane and Ann Druyan present their new show.
WASHINGTON — When some of the nation’s brightest minds gathered here at the Library of Congress to celebrate Carl Sagan, the pioneering astrobiologist, the first guest speaker was someone with no professional background in science.
It was Seth MacFarlane, the multitasking comedian and creator of “Family Guy,” who gave an impassioned speech to the crowd of Ph.D.s and NASA advisers on how scientific achievement had “ceased in many parts of this country to be a source of pride.”
“Long accepted scientific truths have been brought into question largely — who are we kidding? — by one side of the aisle, solely for the purpose of generating passion that could be shaped into various agendas,” Mr. MacFarlane said in November. “And the other side of the aisle has not really put up much of a fight.” (op: accurate)
Now he is taking another step beyond his reputation as a purveyor of coarse humor, as an executive producer and prime mover of a resurrected version of “Cosmos,” the immensely popular documentary series that Sagan helped create and hosted for PBS in 1980.
The original “Cosmos,” in which Sagan explored the origins and evolution of the universe and man’s place in it (in his idiosyncratic, gently adenoidal tones), became a cultural landmark. It won three Emmy Awards and reigned as PBS’s most watched series until the Ken Burns documentary “The Civil War” was shown in 1990.
Mr. MacFarlane said his involvement in the new “Cosmos” — which debuts next Sunday with simultaneous broadcasts on Fox, the National Geographic Channel, FX, FXX, Fox Sports 1 and 2, and several other Fox-owned outlets — was not about rectifying his own image, but honoring the original series, which influenced him as a child.
“ ‘Cosmos’ addressed questions that every human being has, whether they think about them on a mathematical level or just as a layman,” Mr. MacFarlane said in a recent interview. “It presented them in a wonderfully candy-coated way for those of us who are not scientists, and yet it didn’t dumb anything down.”
Yet for Mr. MacFarlane, who himself has been accused of playing to the lowest common denominator, in his bawdy turn as host of the Academy Awards or in movies like “Ted,” which he directed, or television comedies like “Dads,” which he produces, the new “Cosmos” is a reflection of his rebellious streak.
This 13-episode project is an unlikely effort for Fox or any of the broadcast networks, which rarely, if ever, broadcast continuing narrative documentary series in prime time anymore. And, despite its creators’ assertions that it has no political agenda, this “Cosmos” is arriving in an era when public expressions of scientific findings can be potentially polarizing.
“It’s time to make the case for science and for the wonder of the universe revealed by science,” said Ann Druyan, Sagan’s widow and a “Cosmos” collaborator. “Wonder and skepticism — not one at the expense of the other.”
Ms. Druyan created the original “Cosmos” (subtitled “A Personal Voyage”) with Sagan and the astrophysicist Steven Soter. About seven years ago, she and Dr. Soter began pitching PBS, Discovery Channel and other science-oriented networks an upgraded version of the series, one that would incorporate modern special effects and a more contemporary body of scientific knowledge, and would be hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium.
Ms. Druyan said the networks expressed interest, but not necessarily in also giving her creative control. “I know what ‘Cosmos’ is,” she said, “and if they had a better idea of what it was, they probably would have done something like ‘Cosmos’ in all those decades.”
But Ms. Druyan and her colleagues found an enthusiastic advocate in Mr. MacFarlane when he met Dr. Tyson through the Science & Entertainment Exchange of the National Academy of Sciences.
Ms. Druyan, whose children with Sagan are fans of “Family Guy,” said she was not surprised to learn that Mr. MacFarlane was an admirer of “Cosmos” and her work with Sagan.
“There are so many observations in ‘Family Guy’ and Seth’s other shows that obviously declare his contempt for all kinds of foolishness,” she said. “So, of course, he loves science.”
There was more astonishment that Mr. MacFarlane would use his influence at Fox to advocate for “Cosmos” and to forestall what Dr. Tyson called “the uncertainty of taking a product to a venue that has no experience with the product.”
“I knew that they cared about Seth,” Dr. Tyson said of Fox, “and Seth might be the great protector of the content in this brokered exchange.”
Peter Rice, the chairman and chief executive of the Fox Networks Group, said that he did not particularly hesitate at the idea of putting “Cosmos” in prime time, or at its focus on material that could seem academic or arcane.
Additional image from the new series.
“I think everything gives us pause,” Mr. Rice said. “But you look for things that you hope can capture the public’s imagination.”
With a place in the popular culture rivaled only, perhaps, by the 2006 BBC documentary “Planet Earth,” Mr. Rice said, the original “Cosmos” series “was shockingly commercial” and left a deep impression.
“There are few documentaries that are that old, that still have any resonance with an audience,” he said.
Kevin Reilly, Fox’s entertainment chairman (and a Cornell alumnus who lived within egg-throwing distance of Sagan’s house there), said that his interest in “Cosmos” was less an illustration of Mr. MacFarlane’s clout at the network than Mr. MacFarlane’s enthusiasm for the project.
“As important as Seth is to us, we didn’t do this because it was something Seth had to leverage his way into,” Mr. Reilly said. “It was really about a creative guy who we have a very good shorthand with, saying, ‘I’ve got a crazy idea.’ ”
“There’s an awful lot of original programming on the air right now,” Mr. Reilly said. “You’re hard-pressed to find anything on any channel, anywhere, that will bump into this particular production.”
Getting the green light from Fox was only the first of many undertakings for the creation of this “Cosmos.” The series, subtitled “A SpaceTime Odyssey,” required the work of more than a dozen visual effects companies to create some four and a half hours of footage. (Fox would not disclose the show’s budget.)
The original “Cosmos” carried a deeply humanistic message in Sagan’s frequent reminders that Earth and its inhabitants were just tiny specks in a vaster universe. This was a reflection of his personal philosophy, but also of his concern about a catastrophic nuclear holocaust, which he believed could be avoided if humankind focused on its commonalities.
Though that specific fear may have subsided, Dr. Tyson said there were latter-day equivalents that were just as troubling, and that called for a similar spirit of urgency in this new series.
“Do we really know what we’re doing to our environment that we take for granted is just there?” he said. “Can we be good shepherds of this planet? Do we know enough to be good shepherds of this planet?”
Despite Mr. MacFarlane’s warning to the contrary, Dr. Tyson said he was not as concerned that science had lost its place in American culture. Pointing to the success of shows like “The Big Bang Theory” and “NCIS,” and noting that Fox was promoting “Cosmos” during the World Series and Super Bowl telecasts, Dr. Tyson said, “I have very high hopes for America in the face of these facts.”
Mr. MacFarlane took a certain perverse pleasure that Fox’s entertainment division was backing “Cosmos,” even while its Fox News division presented positions he decried in his speech at the Library of Congress.
“They are hurting and helping at the same time,” Mr. MacFarlane said of Fox, his tongue somewhat in cheek. “In that sense, I suppose it’s incumbent upon Fox to do something like this, to make up for all the damage it’s done with its news network.”
But, ultimately, Mr. MacFarlane did not expect the series to inflame political sensibilities of any stripe. “There are no politics in ‘Cosmos,’ ” he said. “All ‘Cosmos’ does is present what we know in the most fun, entertaining way possible.”
Nor did he pursue “Cosmos” to prove that he could be more than the guy behind “Family Guy.” “There’s no P.R. component, if that’s what you’re asking,” he said. “This is not an image move of any kind.”
If anything, Mr. MacFarlane said, “Cosmos” was a challenge to audiences, to see if they will watch higher-brow fare.
Since the creation of television, Mr. MacFarlane said, people have bemoaned “that it does not use its vast powers of communication for anything worthwhile, and all it does is crank out garbage.”
“If ‘Cosmos’ doesn’t get astronomical ratings,” he added with a laugh, “then no one can ever complain about that again. Because here it was, we did it, and you didn’t watch. So stop whining.”
COSMOS: A SPACETIME ODYSSEY Live Event
On Tuesday, March 4, fans in 10 cities across the country will have the exclusive opportunity to watch a LIVE interactive Q&A of the highly anticipated series premiere of COSMOS: A SPACETIME ODYSSEY with COSMOS host Neil deGrasse Tyson, writer/executive producer/director Ann Druyan, executive producer Seth MacFarlane, executive producer Mitchell Cannold, executive producer/director Brannon Braga and co-executive producer Jason Clark will sponsored by Samsung Galaxy® and Chrysler.