Falling Skies returns for its second season in a couple of weeks so it’s a good time to revisit how the TNT series began. When it debuted in the summer of 2011, carrying an Executive Producer credit from Steven Spielberg, I — and probably many others — had high hopes. (Remember, this was before the harsh lesson that was Terra Nova.) I couldn’t help but compare it to The Walking Dead, which had left us hungry for more six months earlier. Each centers on a band of survivors toughing it out after an apocalyptic event, and each story centers on a family man assuming a role of responsibility within the group. That’s where the similarities end. If you’re going to compare the two, Falling Skies will inevitably lose. So, yeah. Don’t do that.
On this second viewing I actually like the show more. So let’s start at the beginning. A voice-over by a child tells us that aliens invaded and everyone (moms and dads) was forced to fight. I think they could have skipped the prologue. The action then opens as a man (Noah Wyle) and a teenager — father and son, we’ll come to learn — race through darkened city streets ducking laser fire. They’re struggling to move a wheelbarrow full of food back to a hideout. They witness a horrifying scene in which a citizen is paralyzed and apparently ripped apart by two different enemies. One is a two-legged robot shooting the lasers we’ve seen, while the other is something that looks like a relative of the aliens from Starship Troopers or District 9. As the men run escape to the outskirts, a bomb is dropped onto the city’s urban center.
This opening scene has the scent of a flash-forward, but we don’t jump to a “two weeks earlier” scene as one might expect. As in The Walking Dead (or… some other show) the inciting incident has already taken place, before the portion of the story the audience gets to see. The late point of attack feels like a bit of a rip-off, as we might like to empathize with the horror of other Earthlings witnessing the onslaught of alien invasion. On the other hand, how many alien invasions have we seen?
We miss the chance to see the characters in their regular, everyday lives, generally considered an integral part of the hero’s journey. This just puts a greater burden on the writers to paint us a picture of what normal looked like. And if they’re any good they’ll do it without heavy-handed exposition like, “Before all this happened I was just a regular husband and father.” (I could mount an argument that there is a trend toward this “late point of attack” style of storytelling on TV, but that’s another post.)
The thing I like most about Falling Skies is, it integrates its exposition into the story pretty smoothly. For example, we learn that Hal (Drew Roy) is Tom’s (Noah Wyle’s) son after Tom’s younger son, Matt (Maxim Knight) draws a picture of his family. Drew glances at it and says, “That looks nothing like me.” It’s not that the relationship is a surprise. It’s just that the fact unfolds as part of the story, not by Tom slapping Drew on the back and saying, “Way to run from those aliens, son.”
Next is a scene in a makeshift war room. An older man (Bruce Gray), apparently in charge, is dividing up the survivors into groups of 300 and sending them out of the city in opposite directions. He appoints Weaver (Will Patton), a man with a distinctly military bearing as leader of the group known as the Second Massachusetts. He makes Tom second in command. He explains to Tom privately that he chose Weaver for his battle experience, and Tom, aka Professor Mason, for his sensitivity to civilian well-being.
Around this time we hear the first mentioned of “harnessed” kids. But it’s a little while later when the writers show us, rather than tell us, what that means. Some tweens/teens, among them Tom’s middle son, have been captured and enslaved by the aliens, each one fitted with a sort of exterior alien spinal column. We see evidence of what happens when the spine apparatus is forcibly removed.
The first hour of this 2-part pilot also introduces several female characters; namely, a potential love interest (Moon Bloodgood) for Tom and two for Hal. It seems the development of the women is where the writers ran out of steam. Sadly, they are all pretty flat and predictable.
Tom’s background as a history professor offers some opportunity to pontificate about the human experience. For example, when he reflects on the events that transpired on Bartlett Hill, a Native American settlement 400 years ago, Love Interest responds with, “I wonder what will be here in another 400 years.” We have a pretty good idea what we’re in for in terms of survivor drama; infighting, jokes about life without smart phones, and the occasional triumph of the human spirit. This is TNT after all. It’s not the most brilliantly written show. It certainly isn’t the most original. And the whole father-son bonding thing gets really sappy. But I appreciate the style in which it unfolds, holding a little something back.
The rest of the season turned out to be a fun ride, so I personally recommend giving it a chance. And, I have a theory about where it’s headed, so see you on GetGlue June 17.