Last night I did something I’ve never done before: I sat down on the couch, watched some primetime network TV, and learned something new.
I learned something pretty amazing, actually. In the next billion years or so, our galaxy, the Milky Way, will crash into the Andromeda galaxy. No one will die as a result, but the collision will create a light show that will be beyond epic. I don’t mean epic in the way we use the way we use the word today, when a bus driver punches a passenger. I mean epic in the sense that thousands upon thousands of stars will change their orbits.
I probably need a bigger word than epic.
I learned about the collision of two galaxies from “Cosmos,” the new Fox science series in its third spectacular week. Seth MacFarlane has a lot of pull at Fox, and he’s used it to get an astrophysicist, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, to come onto a major network to talk to viewers about evolution, astronomy, and most of all, the joys of hard-earned discovery.
I kind of messed up by not mentioning one other thing: “Cosmos” is exhilarating. It makes you feel the way you feel when you sit in an open field looking up at the stars, feeling like part of something much bigger than yourself, and also very small.
Except with “Cosmos,” you’re joined by a genius.
TV spends much too much time celebrating people whose greatest ambition is to be famous. Each week “Cosmos” celebrates a different science teacher, doing the often-unheralded work that needs doing for our civilization to survive. If Walter White had gotten this kind of respect, maybe that whole meth thing never would have happened.
The Onion did a story a few years ago, supposedly written around the time television was invented, in which overoptimistic educators described how TV would deliver an encyclopedia of information each night into the homes of we average Americans, finally breaking down barriers to education and understanding.
The joke: That’s not really how it worked out.
But with “Cosmos,” it is happening. And not on PBS, where Carl Sagan‘s original “Cosmos” aired, 34 years ago. Of course we expect PBS to be great. But “Cosmos” airs on a Big Four, ad-supported network that needs to reach the biggest audience possible. Despite that pressure, Fox is celebrating the best of our society, instead of the worst.
And we can thank the guy who does all those cartoons filled with gay-panic jokes, and sang that Oscars song about boobs.
I asked MacFarlane a few months ago if he sees “Cosmos” as a way to balance out his other work. He brushed it off, rejecting the idea that there was any reason he should have to defend “Family Guy.”
But no matter what you think of everything else he’s done, I think you’d have to agree: He’s using his power for good.
“Cosmos” appeals to all our best instincts. It invites us to dream our biggest dreams, set our intellect free, and come lay out under the vast twinkling sky.