Falling Skies premiered last week with a two-hour block that wasn’t so much an extended pilot but two episodes that to happened air on the same night. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: While the first hour hummed along at a decent but semi-predictable pace, the second hour featured a fascinating detour into a high school that was more chamber drama than alien invasion. “Prisoner of War” returns to the format of the first hour, with an established theme depicted in the show’s title and a singular mission played out on multiple fronts. If anything stood out in this latest hour, it’s how shamelessly this show wears its narrative antecedents on its sleeve.
Now, coming up with a wholly original storyline for every television show is a tall order at best and a pipe dream at worst. To say that Falling Skies borrows heavily from other television shows, movies, and novels is not to say that it’s plagiarizing those sources. Plagiarizing would imply an attempt to hide these original elements. Instead, it pays homage to them, or at least attempts to do so, in the bare rewriting that occurs between what was and what is. Is it always successful? Of course not. But the attempt in and of itself isn’t the biggest crime this show commits.
That crime lies in having certain characters do things for no other reason than to create a problem for the show to solve. There are plenty of ways to create disastrous results for well-meaning attempts in this post-invasion world. So it’s disappointing to have a scouting mission go awry when Karen accidentally touches a loose brick. It’s even worse having Mike (heretofore a cool, collected asset to Tom’s attempts to be surgical in his attempts to rescue the harnessed children) go apeshit upon seeing his son Rick, put everyone’s lives in danger, and upend the original point of their rescue mission. Was it a natural reaction for a father? Probably. But in Tom, the show already has an example of how it’s possible to be both a father AND a solider in this new world order.
And this new world order, scraped together as it is from The Walking Dead, Battlestar: Galactica, Independence Day, Y: The Last Man, and a host of other pop culture artifacts, is a pretty interesting one all the same. Steven Weber showed up this week as Michael Harris, a wanna-be Gaius Baltar who doesn’t have nearly the charm but has all of the survivor’s guilt of his predecessor. We learn early in the hour that he was there on the morning that Tom’s wife, Rebecca, died, but the circumstances around her death shift throughout the episode. At first, Harris claims that the two were separated, but Tom knows that the satchel found with her corpse was too heavy for her to carry alone. But Harris has a zinger of his own: Tom should have been on patrol that day, which means both men live with their own guilt from the occurence. Harris may have fled like a coward, but Tom essentially slept through the attack due to exhaustion.
The idea that those remaining are not humanity’s finest representatives is pure Battlestar: Galactica, as is the memory wall created in the school hallway to let squads see the faces of those harnessed. But Battlestar doesn’t exactly get to maintain singular hold over this imagery (imagery itself derived from real-world elements, both on the physical and psychological levels). If only the show dove more into such survivors’ guilt for those left behind. It’s obviously too early to bring everyone up to a three-dimensional level at this stage, but only Tom currently registers as a character rather than an archetype. Anne Glass possibly comes the closest, but she’s still focusing more on medicine than her own grief to truly take the next step. However, it’s always possible that her work with Rick will bring out some dormant grief based on her son’s death.
Speaking of Rick, everyone enjoy the de-harnessing? On one level, the employment of child slave labor is so egregiously pulling on the audience heartstrings that I want to slap the writers for going to such an easy emotional well. On the other hand, those harnesses ARE fairly creepy, and the whole use of children to gather scrap metal is so banal that it somehow becomes menacing. Karen rightly points out early on that an entire invasion for old electronics seems like overkill. But there’s still a lot we don’t know about the reason behind such labor, how the mechs/skitter relationship works, how the large edifices inside major cities ties into their plan, and, perhaps most importantly: What will we find inside those bipedal mech suits?
In some ways, having the show’s antecedents so clearly on display could work for the show in terms of misdirection. Having Harris so clearly based on Baltar has me doubting his every word, especially concerning his intuitive sense of how the harnesses act as opiates to dull the children’s senses. There’s nothing in-show to suggest anything but a man that spends every moment of his life thinking that he should already be dead. And such misdirection is how the show can take its obvious reference points to fashion itself into something new and fresh. Then again, the flip side of all this is that I am potentially assigning a LOT more depth to Harris’ character than is actually intended. That means what I’m seeing isn’t complexity so much as sloppy writing. For now, I’m taking Tom’s leading and siding with hope until proven otherwise.
Falling Skies need not be groundbreaking entertainment to be successful. But it needs to be entertaining all the same. There’s a lot going for it at this current stage of the game, most of it surrounding its swiftly and confidently built sense of the rules of its post-invasion world. But it keeps undercutting its stronger elements for cheap narrative shortcuts to keep things moving along. Either it turns a sensible man like Mike into a raving idiot at a crucial point or it steps on the melodrama pedal in order to unsubtly shift subtext into screaming all-caps TEXT to underline (yet undermine). Did I need five speeches about the importance of hope to drive home that message? Did I need Tom’s youngest son to add Speilbergian-soupiness to scenes already brimming with understandable human drama? Do I need to actually answer either of those questions for you?
There’s a fine line to inject hope into a believable dystopia. The threat has to be real but not overwhelming. People need to be on guard but not constantly on edge. The survivors need to constantly fight but also remind themselves of what it is they are fighting for. We know after tonight’s hour that we’re watching but one of many militias that have sprung up in the United States (and, ostensibly, the world) in the aftermath of the invasion. Knowing that contextualizes the fight that Falling Skies is depicting on a weekly basis. For the show to exceed being simple summer fodder, it needs to create a better balance going forward between being cutthroat and being cuddly. Right now, that imbalance is creating some dissonance. It’s not enough to turn me off the show, but it’s enough to keep me a little worried. I suppose we’ll just have to watch together to see how things progress from here.
- I dinged the show’s grade slightly for taking last week’s best element–John Pope–and relegating him to a silly C-story involving his past training as a chef inside prison. Here's hoping he's only on the sidelines temporarily.
- After the ongoing movement of last week’s episodes, this one finds the survivors settling into a school as a safe haven. This undoubtedly will help keep costs down for the production, but also it allows for a spontaneous repurposing of the building for things like daycare, schooling, and a host of other activities designing to keep some continuity to life before the invasion.
- Speaking of continuity, I liked the various newspaper clippings of the initial appearance of the aliens alongside the photos of the missing kids. It’s a small touch but speaks a lot to the world in the days before the genocide.
- Best part of the episode: The strong, scary one on one fight between Tom and the skitter in the tunnel. Tom took Pope’s advice from last week, which Pope may have derived from the videogame Dead Space, to good use. It was so good I didn’t mind the restaging of Will Smith dragging an alien through the desert to Area 51.
- Deep thought: does Tom’s military expertise apply to alien behavior because “war is war is war,” or because the mechs/skitters learned it through observing human behavior? If it’s the latter, I look forward to a scene near the end of season one with Tom asking the aliens why they invaded Earth, and one of them replying, “You, alright! I LEARNED IT BY WATCHING YOU!” In short: Humans that wage wars have alien onlookers that wage wars.
- “Six of us, five of them. I like those odds.”
- “Nobody puts paprika on chicken. What are you, Hungarian?”
- “For the love of God, can someone please find me some olive oil?”
- “Porter wants me to stick around a little while longer and make a fuller study of our conquerors.”