What if you set "Grey's Anatomy" in outer space?

ABC's drama "Defying Gravity" sends McDreamy astronauts on a collision course with a meteor made of stinky cheese

Published July 30, 2009 10:32AM (EDT)

Ron Livingston in "Defying Gravity."
Ron Livingston in "Defying Gravity."

Sometimes watching summer TV is almost like sitting in on a network development brainstorming session gone mad: "What if we put obese women in a dance competition?" "What if we film a bunch of annoying American families driving around the country in Winnebagos?" "How can we trick Paris Hilton into acting like an asshole again?"

We can only assume that such a meeting was the birthplace of ABC's "Defying Gravity" (premieres 9 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 2), a 13-episode drama series that poses the question, "What if we put 'Grey's Anatomy' in space?" Here's the answer: Cute astronauts fall in love. Cute astronauts question authority. Cute astronauts lose their cute little minds. Cute astronauts re-enact the last floaty lovemaking scene from "Moonraker."

Like "Grey's," the series begins with a moody voiceover, this one delivered by Ron Livingston, the Ellen Pompeo of amiable but sulky male leads: "Being an astronaut is all about control. From the walk to the launchpad to the final touchdown, you don't want surprises." Doesn't that sound just like Mer, our favorite spewer of sweeping emotional generalities?

I fancied myself clever for referring to "Defying Gravity" as a "Grey's in Space" (cue "Pigs in Space" theme from "The Muppet Show") until I noticed that "Gravity" was created by James Parriott, an executive producer from "Grey's Anatomy." Then it all started to seem hopelessly obvious: The adorable, lonely blonde prone to self-deprecating asides who is secretly haunted by the worry (or hope?) that she might be pregnant; the geekily enthusiastic male version of Little Grey, losing his doughnuts when his dreams of space travel are threatened; and best of all, pouty-lipped Livingston himself, whose character must endure the drunken ramblings of a sick old father straight out of central casting. (Yeah, we buy Aqualung as Livingston's father, just like we bought prim, prudish Katherine Heigl growing up in a trailer park.) This is the joy and beauty of "Grey's Anatomy," this is what makes it sweet and chewy and addictive in a way that sometimes causes you to vomit all over your new couch when watching: Facts are molded conveniently around whatever seems poignant and dramatic at the time. Make hot doctors humble, bend rules of time and space, cue vagina music.

Not that there's anything wrong with hot doctors or vagina music. I not only endorse a pro-vaginal sonic landscape -- Princess Leia themes, strummy chords, weepy sopranos and all -- but I also fully support the rampant use of fantastical characters like boyishly charming astronauts and ultra-hot, super-humble doctors (hence the name "McDreamy," as in "completely dreamt-up and fabricated, and therefore commercially viable"). I also stand behind imaginary scenarios like floaty lovemaking and video diaries and documentaries filmed for the folks back home (Hello, "Virtuality"!). Even bending the laws of time and space seems acceptable in most cases.

But bending the laws of physics on a space soap is where I draw the line. While I can understand why Parriott and Co. might be tempted to simply swap out the high-pressure hospital setting with a high-pressure intergalactic setting, the stupidity of "Defying Gravity" really knows no bounds.

Let's see, where to begin? The astronauts have suits that allow them to walk around like regular humans in space, as if there's gravity there. Meanwhile, objects tossed between them float. The enthusiastic geek explains: "Our grav suits contain nano fibers that pull us toward the deck electromagnetically. But anything without the nanotechnology, like Jen's tomatoes, will float." See? Stupid. Later, one of the characters steps out of the capsule (if you dare!) and "rides" on the back of a satellite in a seated position, instead of floating away from it. Maybe because of the "nanotechnology" of his "grav suit"? Either way? Stupid. Then another ship floats a few feet away from the seated man and one of its occupants has a Come-to-Jesus talk with him, face to face, through the glass. Schmaltzy, and stupid.

Now generally, I don't care that much when TV shows bungle science. But when you start out by giving the puffy-lipped pretty boy a hard-drinking daddy, then throw in cute astronauts and poignant voiceovers and sexiness in dive bars that look just like the dusty, oh-so-authentic joints in "The Right Stuff," and you top it all off with dangerous high-stakes space scenarios and "Moonraker" sex ... Well, it all adds up to one glorious wad of melted, sticky cheese. Self-important cheese. Expensive, smelly, self-important cheese.

And even though expensive, smelly, self-important cheese is just as delicious as hot humble doctors, I just can't get my mind off how completely fabricated and McSilly and McMelodramatic and McDumb it all is.

Plus, it's always disturbing when something that's very cute and unrealistic and therefore commercially viable turns Very Dark in seconds: The cute astronauts freak out. The music becomes stark and deadly. Boyish lead punches Questionable Authority Figure in the jaw. And then, the Very Dark voiceover: "Space travel is a fool's game. Human beings are 60 percent water. We sleep, eat, defecate, can't follow directions, and we explode like piñatas when exposed to the vacuum of space."

Oh dear. Did he just say explode like piñatas? We're not going to have to see that, are we? Thankfully, more vagina music is on the way, along with some Very Important But Obvious Lessons, like "We can find redemption in the simplest acts of humanity."

Yes, and we can find damnation in the simplest acts of developmental brainstorming. "What would happen if we put 'Grey's Anatomy' in space?" The answer? Grey's in Spaaaaaaaaace!

All things considered, they really should've cast this one with Muppets.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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