"Salvation" gives us the fantasy of ending with a bang in a story that whimpers

The new CBS series is a dull race against a planet-killing asteroid, but is that really the worst way to go?

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published July 11, 2017 6:59PM (EDT)

Santiago Cabrera in "Salvation"   (CBS)
Santiago Cabrera in "Salvation" (CBS)

We’re all going to die. No getting around that, innovations in cryogenics and time travel notwithstanding. But the question more of us are mulling over these days concerns the likelihood of many or even all of us dying at the same time. As if, poof – game over,  humanity.

For instance, I live in a part of the country that a 2015 report in the New Yorker promises me will be swallowed by the Earth at any moment.  This joyful knowledge plays behind the usual murmur about anti-microbial resistance and viral pandemics. Then there’s the recent coverage of North Korea’s increasingly worrisome efforts to attain an intercontinental ballistic missile, and New York magazine’s delightful explanation of all the choking, drowning and burning we’ll have to look forward to if our current rate of global warming melts the Arctic permafrost.

Given all of that noise, the scenario posed in the new CBS drama “Salvation”— that a planet-killing asteroid is on a collision course with Earth, and the world greatest minds have 186 days to stop it — may elicit a reaction of, “Meh.”

That’s partly because this precise scenario has played out in a number of films and TV series, including 1998’s “Armageddon” and the dead-on-arrival dramedy “You, Me and the Apocalypse,” which ran on NBC in 2016; partly because there’s isn’t much we can do about asteroids annihilation; and partly because there are far worse ways to go. Considering what's happening in the world, seeing a lethal flash of light up the sky might actually lead many of us to breathe a sigh of relief.  Extinction by asteroid has a neat finality about it. But the days leading up to that grand finale could be interesting. Just not as they’re depicted in “Salvation.”

Wednesday night’s premiere, airing at 9 p.m., opens with a reminder of the Chelyabinsk meteor that took the world by surprise in 2013, when it exploded over Russia. A dramatized news report within the series features Neil deGrasse Tyson explaining melodramatically that the problem with the danger posed by such celestial detritus is that “we just don’t even know they’re there until it’s too late.”

Ah, but thank goodness for MIT grad student Liam Cole (Charlie Rowe), just your average hyper-intelligent slacker who never makes it to class on time. Liam concocted an early detection program that discovers the threatening asteroid and takes the information to Darius Tanz (Santiago Cabrera), a pompous tech whiz modeled upon Elon Musk. Liam’s findings are consistent with what the government has already discovered, leading Pentagon official Grace Barrows (Jennifer Finnigan) to loop in Darius and Liam to help in figuring out a way to avoid disaster.

Imminent destruction does not prevent a conspiracy from bungling the action, thought the scheme seems to exists for the sole purpose of manufacturing tension. Then again, this series desperately needs to do something to compensate for its lack of interesting characters. Grace struggles to keep the truth hidden from her daughter, Liam vacillates between wanting to assist in the mission and living it up in his last days. Darius, meanwhile, would rather devote his efforts to colonizing Mars.

Cabrera makes his character memorably and realistically unlikable, but that only makes a viewer less likely to envy anyone stuck in a spaceship with him. In that regard, none of the characters in “Salvation” give the audience much of a reason to cheer for humanity’s preservation. Everyone is grim, dour or in some cases, unreasonably calm about facing the end of the world. Indeed, it would be fascinating for this or any other show to honestly explore the lunacy that would result once we knew that the planet has a finite amount of time left. But this is network television; there must always be a hero with a plan, or a solution that's just a formula away.

As we contend with increasing likelihood of an apocalypse, the scenario in “Salvation” highlights how frail and tenuous our existence is when set against the vastness of the cosmos or left to the selfish arrogance of autocrats or the whims of madmen. And it also unintentionally reminds us that our time is precious, and tomorrow is not guaranteed. You’d be better off catching up with any number of superior series or films available right now. Life and summer are simply too short to waste on cut-rate visions of doom.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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