I will never not have something to say about new sci-fi television. With that rule firmly in place, time for some thoughts on Falling Skies, TNT’s new original series about human resistance fighters facing conquest and extinction six months after a devastating alien invasion.
To begin, I think the show has promise, even after seeing the first four episodes, which I would characterize as a mixed bag. The show is clearly trying to build a solid mythology, and focusing on the central questions that are plaguing the resistance itself - what are the aliens after? What are their motives? Why have they abducted children and turned them into a slave labor force? Where and who is their leader? What’s their Achilles’ heel? The writers seem to know where they’re going in this respect - the creator has suggested in interviews that he’s already got at least the major aspects of the just-approved Season 2 nailed down. In fact, revealing these pieces of the puzzle are what the writers are doing best. Such little revelations are always intriguing, and at least for me, get me thinking and even scheming like the humans would - “how could we use this new info to our advantage?”
Likewise, Noah Wyle does a good job as the show’s central character, Tom Mason, a history professor with three sons, one of which has been abducted by the aliens. It’s evident that he knows the character inside and out already, which I think is in many ways holding the series together. In fact, after the last episode, I cannot think of any other characters I really like or identify with.
And that’s where my concerns for the show come into the picture.
First, I think it’s an understatement to say that major plot points have revolved around characters losing their cool under pressure (to put it diplomatically). While I understand that a weary, emotional, battle-beaten, civilian-soldier would probably not act with the calm demeanor of a Special Forces soldier. I can’t say exactly how I’d act under similar circumstances, but I would probably be more cautious than these folks. Making the point that this is an army full of teachers and doctors and teenagers is fine, but you don’t have to make it 10 times an episode, when your characters are alerting the enemy to their position at every turn.
This is different but related to my criticism of The Walking Dead's first season. In Walking Dead, I complained that the characters defied the logic dictated by their dire situation by putting themselves in grave danger for little potential reward - for instance, returning to the zombie-infested streets of Atlanta to retrieve the likely dead, loathsome, white supremacist brother of one of the “crew.” Falling Skies is marginally better - characters act irrationally and even stupidly, but they seem to recognize their mistakes afterwards, for the most part. The invasion has taken its toll on them emotionally and mentally, and I get that. I just hope that the plot starts progressing because of characters who are acting intelligently, instead of incompetently.
Second, if the mythology-building scenes are the show’s strong point, then the character interactions are its biggest weakness. I guess it’s because I’ve seen the same dynamics before, particularly in Battlestar Galactica. If I want to see a gruff commanding officer who views the civilians under his protection after a civilization-wide disaster as a burden, I’ll watch Adama at any point in the first season of Battlestar, thanks. If I wanted to see the “witty, survive-at-all-costs, lull-your-enemies-into-trusting-you” character, I won’t opt for Pope, the outlaw the resistance finds in the second episode. I’ll watch Gaius f’ing Baltar. If I cared about a love triangle, I’ll watch Lee and Kara and Dualla battle it out in Season 3 of BSG - or any teen soap opera.
I don’t mean to say there’s nothing good here, it’s just too coarse and poorly-defined in some ways, and too tried-and-true in others, to really grab my attention. Perhaps the best interactions are between Tom (Wyle) and his oldest son. At least, those are the ones I don’t roll my eyes at most of the time.
Speaking of rolling my eyes, does the ending of every episode have to be twee and inspiring? It’s hard to accept 42 minutes of dark sci-fi goodness when you have 2 minutes of golly-gee “I’m thankful for this food” dialogue at the end of it. Give us some cliffhangers! Give us some last-minute intrigue! I think the only episode so far that did not have some kind of “strength-of-the-human-spirit” ending was the third one of the season, probably the strongest outing of the bunch.
In the end, Falling Skies has to decide whether it is hardcore serial drama or something more, well, TNT-esque. It needs to start punching above the weight of its network counterparts, which are not terrible shows, but not terribly impressive either. That will be the challenge as it