‘The Expanse’ Review: Syfy Series Tries to Be ‘Game of Thrones’ in Space

The story is dark and complicated, but the payoff is mixed

When it comes to aspirations, Syfy’s “The Expanse” sure has plenty. Based on the novels by James S.A. Corey, the series has long been touted as “Game of Thrones” in space. Even George R.R. Martin himself has thrown his clout behind the project, urging his followers to watch it as they look for anything to occupy themselves with while he’s writing.

Like Martin’s Westeros chronicles, “The Expanse” is indeed expansive with the universe it sets up within the pilot and through the characters presented. Unfortunately though there’s so much going on in the pilot that it quickly becomes a convoluted romp through space that’s more about showcasing the wasteland that humans have become than developing characters viewers will remember, let alone invest in watching. It’s a problem many sci-fi series with high concepts such as this one face, as they try to find the hook that will keep audiences engaged while world building and setting up conflict. It’s a tall order for an hour of any television show, especially one based on such rich source material.

Here the conflict comes quickly and easily, as it’s established that Earth has been taken over by the U.N., Mars is running rogue with militia and power, and the poor souls in between are “Belters,” those working on the Asteroid Belt to protect precious resources like air and water. Everyone is one chess move away from an interplanetary war, with politics, rebels, freedom fighters and the interesting concept of what happens to a body in zero gravity all coming into play.

Cinematically, the project is dark and dense, and filled with imagery of waste and political unrest serving as a greater commentary for the more general expectation of human behavior and its ability to self-destruct in the near future. Sadly this lends to the overall doom and gloom that may be enough to deter viewers during this happier holiday season.

Indeed it’s the lighter moments — when they surface — that are some of the most enjoyable. From anti-gravity sex romps to an all-too-brief appearance by Jonathan Banks as a tree-hugger who has gone off his rocker in space, those are the human moments the show desperately needs more of to connect.

Certainly the actors they’ve chosen to represent this world could pull that off. Thomas Jane as the grumpy detective Josephus Miller is able to captivate quickly with his jaunty hat and tortured soul. Meanwhile the juxtaposition of Shohreh Aghdashloo‘s U.N. character tickling her grandson one moment while torturing someone with gravity the next immediately lends intrigue. And we can’t forget Steven Strait, an unwilling leader who is forced to take a team towards a strange distress signal.

It’s that signal that finally pulls the three narratives together by the end of the first hour, as larger chains of events are set in motion. Granted nothing here feels new or pressing, or as intense as an episode of the aforementioned “Game of Thrones.” But if sweeping, beautiful scenes and expansive stories that take episodes to piece together are your thing, you’ll be set with “The Expanse.”

“The Expanse” premieres with a two-night event on Dec. 14 and 15 on Syfy.

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