Falling Skies, the new alien invasion series produced by Steven Spielberg (and other people), dropped us right in the middle of the action during its solid, if not amazing, two-hour series premiere.
There was no cryptic buildup to the Earth-shattering events that define the show's world, and there was no stale origin story to eat up the first half hour. We learned everything we needed to know about the post-apocalyptic world that Spielberg and crew created for the show with a quick and efficient expository opening montage – scary, evil aliens conquered the Earth, laid waste to humanity, wiped out all tech, and have started to enslave the world’s children. Now there’s a ragtag resistance that’s fighting back. Short, simple, and, thankfully, remarkably straightforward stuff.
It’s easy to appreciate Falling Skies’ direct approach to genre storytelling, especially after sitting through too many meandering and poorly written genre series in the past few years that tried, and failed, to repeat the lightning-in-a-bottle success of Lost (I’m looking at you, V and The Event!). Falling Skies isn’t about people trying to prevent global destruction, and it’s not really about people trying to beat down their alien attackers. At its heart, the show is about people learning to live under extreme circumstances.
What would humanity look like after aliens have wiped out most of the planet? What would inspire the survivors to keep on living and to fight back against their otherworldly oppressors? And, in a greater sense, how do we live and cope after a worldwide tragedy? Falling Skies attempts to answer all of these questions while exploring themes of family and loyalty, and, of course, offering some fun sci-fi shoot-em-ups. In this way, Falling Skies reminds me of two of my favorite genre shows of the past few years, Battlestar Galactica and The Walking Dead. Those shows are all about crippled civilizations living under constant fear of an unstoppable enemy. They’re also about examining humanity’s darkest impulses during its darkest hour. Falling Skies explores the same territory, but, judging by the premiere, the show won’t soon reach the dark and challenging heights of BSG or The Walking Dead.
Those shows, especially BSG, explored the idea that humanity wasn’t worth saving, and that the human spirit, while strong and stubborn, can indeed be crushed. Falling Skies airs on TNT. Steven Spielberg produced it. So, yeah, there’s a pretty heavy “triumph of the human spirit” vibe here that shines through every scene, even when things threaten to get a little edgy. But, luckily, the show didn’t get too schmaltzy in its first two hours. We all know that Spielberg loves to lay on the sentimentality, but the sentimental moments here were pretty easy to digest. The show’s writers -- Robert Wodat (Saving Private Ryan) penned part one and Graham Yost (Justified) wrote part two – did a nice job of balancing the squeaky clean family stuff with strong suspense and bites of an overarching mystery. Plus, Falling Skies isn’t afraid to show kids carrying guns or to make references to heavy topics like racism, sexual abuse or violent death.
Here’s another reason the family-friendly stuff mostly works: Noah Wyle is excellent in the leading role of Tom Mason, a former History professor and father turned unwashed resistance fighter. The character isn’t supposed to be Rambo, but he’s not exactly a milquetoast either. Tom is a clear-eyed, educated leader who knows how to handle a gun and isn’t afraid to take risks to help his friends and family. He’s a man whose learned to make some tough choices, like letting his teenage son carry guns and become a soldier, but still tries to give his younger son a joyous childhood, even when he’s surrounded by death and desperation. Wyle inhabits the character quite well and, while the writing wasn’t all there yet and we didn’t really get to learn a whole lot about Tom, the former ER star adds some fine grace notes and subtle quirks to the performance. I didn’t even mind hearing him go on and on about his nerdy knowledge of military history and how resistance fighters can win the day by simply refusing to cede all ground to the opposing force.
Tom has two sons, armed teenager Hal (Drew Roy) and innocent kiddo Matt (Maxim Knight). The aliens abducted Tom’s third son, Ben (Connor Mason), which leads us to the arc that will stick with us for the rest of the season. Like the 456 from Torchwood: Children of Earth, these aliens want kids. Like, bad. And they control them by attaching creepy-looking exo-spines to their backs. Tom and Hal are determined to find and free Ben, and, it seems, the road to finding Ben is also the road to uncovering the many mysteries of the aliens. Why did they come to Earth? Why do they want kids? Why do they control two-legged robo-mechs when they clearly have six legs? I’m intrigued by the mystery here, but I’m delighted that Falling Skies isn’t “all mystery all the time.” The show has stories to tell and characters to grow, and watching these folks face new challenges every week is more exciting to me than learning every single detail there is to learn about the “Skitters.”
Oh, yeah, the Skitters. They’re genuinely creepy and threatening. The alien design isn’t too far off from what were used to seeing in popular sci-fi flicks, like the Alien series and Independence Day, but they’re distinctive enough. I like that they’re kind of small, about six or seven feet, and that they move in swift and disturbing ways, like giant insects.
Cool looking aliens aside, the show wouldn’t amount to much if it didn’t offer characters that we care about and good actors to play the more important roles. As I mentioned before, I like Wyle as Tom, and his son Hal isn’t nearly as annoying as he could be, which is a testament to the writing and to Drew Roy’s performance. In the resistance camp, my other two favorites are Moon Bloodgood’s Dr. Anne Glass and Jimmy, played by young actor Dylan Authors. Much to my surprise, the writers resisted making Jimmy, a 13-year-old, gun-toting solider, less of a snarky, know-it-all brat and more of a soulful team player who seems wise beyond his years. But I like that he’s still a kid, as we saw when he ran after his dog and blew the group’s cover during the stake out. Bloodgood is also surprisingly soulful and smart as Anne. It looks like the show is laying the groundwork to make her the leader of the civilians, which should prove interesting once growing rift between the civvies, or “eaters,” and the soldiers eventually heats up.
Without getting too Battlestar bleak on us, Falling Skies introduced us to a few darker members of society who held our heroes captive and threatened to do some pretty nasty stuff, like sexually abuse one of the central characters and kill the main character. The threat of deranged nastiness was there, but John Pope’s (Colin Cunningham) group of outlaw tweekers came off more silly than scary. I kept waiting for every member of Pope’s faceless crew, save for Maggie (Sarah Carter), to get killed off. And they did! I’m glad they all died, because now the show can easily work Pope into the resistance now that he has no one else to turn to.
To say that Cunningham’s performance as Pope injected a little charisma and danger into the show would be a huge understatement. I didn’t care for his character at first, dismissing him as a one-note, fast-talking baddie, but I found myself quickly compelled by his sly attitude and “whoo doggies!” perspective as the second hour played out. Sure, Pope is probably gonna be a warm and fuzzy bad guy who later becomes a good guy, but that doesn’t mean that Cunningham will be less fun to watch. Here’s hoping the writers give him some challenging and fun stuff to do this season. I’d love to see him form a friendship with Wyle’s Tom, as the scene with them sharing a beer was one of the best scenes of the night.
It’s tempting to call out Falling Skies as a genre show that, in an effort to appeal to a mass audience as well as genre fans, pulls its punches and ends up disappointing both sets of viewers, but this premiere showed a lot of promise. Despite some clunky bits here and there that took me out of the show, and, perhaps, the threat that the sentimentality factor will become too much to bare, I’m looking forward to catching the next several episodes. I won’t be surprised if the show becomes a hit with nerdy sci-fi fans as well as a broader audience.