Falling Skies: "Live And Learn"/"The Armory"
B+

Falling Skies: "Live And Learn"/"The Armory"

Falling Skies debuts tonight with a two-hour premiere at 9 p.m. Eastern on TNT.

The smartest decision the producers of Falling Skies—who include among their number Steven Spielberg, screenwriter Robert Rodat, Battlestar Galactica veteran Mark Verheiden, and Justified showrunner Graham Yost—made was to open the series months after the alien villains invaded the Earth. There’s no long, punishingly slow build-up to the invasion, like there was on the V remake, for instance. The war is in the past. Humanity lost and lost badly. And now those who fight back are mostly fighting back because they don’t know what else to do and are well aware they’re unlikely to defeat the alien horde. Hell, the best that main character Tom Mason (a very good Noah Wyle) hopes for is to become enough of an irritant to the aliens that they decide Earth’s not worth the trouble and move on to some other planet. But even he seems to know that’s a tall order when the aliens have such an obvious technical advantage over us humans.

Falling Skies isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t really aspire to be much more than enjoyable, meat and potatoes science fiction. But on that level, it more than delivers, with plenty of great action-adventure moments per episode, some solid (if unremarkable) character work, and some nice mysteries about the aliens’ true motivations sprinkled throughout the first three hours. It’s not as relentlessly grim as The Walking Dead or as intrigued by questions of ethics and morals as the Galactica remake, but it still has a good sense of the kind of weary despair that would grab hold of people struggling to simply survive in the face of an overwhelming threat. It’s a show that understands that there needs to be something underlying the show’s “mythology,” and it supplements every single episode with a series of mission-based storylines, roughly combining a post-apocalyptic series about aliens with the sorts of military, squad-based dramas that briefly took hold in the ‘60s. (See also: Combat!)

At the center of the story is the Mason family, headed by Tom, a former history professor who’s risen through the ranks of a former military regiment that’s now mostly comprised of a few old veterans who hang on and a bunch of civilians who’ve been remade into makeshift soldiers. Tom’s division of 300 features 100 fighters and 200 civilians, and the tension between the two groups, while not as well-defined as that on Galactica, is nicely drawn. Tom’s teenage son, Hal (Drew Roy, who somehow plays cocky and cautious simultaneously), joins him on the front lines of the various scavenging missions commander Weaver (a gruff and often terrific Will Patton) sends the squad on. Tom’s also got a much younger son named Matt (Maxim Knight), who provides most of the Spielberg-approved sappy episode climaxes, and a middle son named Ben who’s no longer with his family and may have suffered an awful fate.

Among the others in the motley crew are doctor Anne Glass (Moon Bloodgood), scrappy teenage scout Karen (Jessy Schram), and resourceful right-hand man Dai (Peter Shinkoda). Nobody’s going to mistake anything this series does for deep character development, but after watching three hours, I already feel like I know everyone from the regular characters to the recurring folks who hang out in the background of scenes better than anyone on The Walking Dead. This is a show where characters are sketched in as broad of types as possible, but it figures out a way to make that work, and by the time Tom’s leading a mission to save some alien slaves in next week’s episode, all of the members of his tiny squad have coalesced into fairly distinct personalities. Sure, the motivations for the characters are usually pretty simplistic—there’s a guy here who may as well be Michael from Lost, for how he seems to exist solely to wander around mumbling about his missing son—but they’re all believable, particularly in this sort of setting.

The biggest strength of the show is its mission-based storylines. Tonight’s first hour requires Tom and his squad to gather food to feed their 300 traveling companions. The second hour starts as a story about scouting out an armory to see if the aliens are using it as a trap, then seizing some of its weapons if they aren’t. And next week’s third hour is about rescuing those alien slaves. Along the way, Tom and the others speculate about what the aliens’ true motives might be, and they encounter strange things that will hopefully coalesce along the way and point toward even bigger mysteries (as the smaller mysteries did on Lost and Galactica). The missions are succinct and to the point, but they also don’t go exactly the way you’d expect. Yes, on every mission, the squad runs into aliens and has to fight them, and yes, on every mission, things don’t go exactly according to plan, but there are interesting twists and turns interspersed throughout, particularly in tonight’s second hour (the strongest I've seen), which is scripted by Yost and introduces a recurring character who wouldn’t feel out of place on Justified.

The aliens themselves are nicely creepy, even if they do seem to reflect Spielberg’s growing obsession with aliens that look like weird lizard-insect hybrids. (These ones, in particular, feel like slightly different versions of the aliens from War Of The Worlds.) The most interesting thing is that the enemy forces come in two different factions, the Skitters (who are the flesh and blood aliens, all six legs and weird faces) and the Mechs (which are the Skitters’ mechanized grunts, who do most of the actual fighting). The Skitters feel like something out of a horror film, while the Mechs feel more action-ish in nature, and having the two together makes for some nicely staged action sequences in every episode. The Skitters also have a strange device called a Harness that prompts human kids to do their bidding, and it sure seems as if rounding up our children is central to their plan. The Harness may be the creepiest thing in the show, a weird combination of biological and technological elements that looks like something no one would want to have attached to their spines ever.

The series has its share of problems. Tom is too fond of dipping into the history books to explain just how the characters are facing situations similar to Alexander the Great or George Washington or the 2004 Boston Red Sox. There’s clunky exposition here and there. Some of the characters make stupid decisions simply because the plot requires them to, and these decisions are rarely motivated as well as they might be. And finally, the alien race doesn’t seem to have anything like the weird grandeur of the Cylons on Galactica. Like the zombies on Walking Dead, they’re just cannon fodder to be killed, and that could grow wearying over the course of many seasons of television.

But those problems all pale in the face of the fact that this is a pretty fun, action-packed series that plays around with alien invasion motifs and finds enough interesting things amidst the clichés to be worth watching. Falling Skies isn’t reinventing television, but in a summer where the vast majority of new scripted series seem to be aiming at something little better than complacency, it’s nice to see something that builds on its formula and hints at bigger and better things. It’s entirely possible this is all building to a big letdown, but the first three hours of the show, at least, indicate that there will be plenty of fun along the way. The ride, at least, should be a good time.

Stray observations:

  • My wife has an intriguing theory to answer one character's question about something strange about the Mechs that I'll try to post in comments once this has aired.
  • Speaking of Lost, there's a subplot in next week's episode that feels very reminiscent of that show's early days, when Hurley was putting together golf courses and shit, in the midst of everybody else trying to explore the Island and rebuild civilization.
  • Ryan McGee will be taking over the show from week to week, starting with next week's episode.

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