Network television was not kind to Steven Spielberg in recent months. In a year where the legendary director produced no fewer than four different shows, his track record was poor enough that he may want to stick with films and pay cable. The River never really caught on with audiences, and ABC allowed it to drift away, while FOX executives proved with Terra Nova they knew exactly how to kill a show with a dinosaur, regardless of how much money they’d poured into it. Smash managed to survive to a second season on NBC, but what had been one of the most heavily hyped premieres of the season turned into a spectacular narrative train wreck most were watching out of perverse fascination.
By those comparisons, TNT’s Falling Skies is a success, not that it’s been perfect. In his review of the season finale last year, my colleague Ryan McGee was less than kind to it, accusing the first season of being a schizophrenic affair that “perpetually annoyed a fan base that wanted more than anything to fall in love with this show.” I liked the show as a whole much more than he did—granted, I caught up on DVD, as opposed to watching live—but I do acknowledge that Falling Skies had some serious structural problems in the early going. It tended to fall into mawkish territory with its fondness for ending episodes on heart-warming speeches, and the alien presence could be sporadic at best as internal divisions between the survivors took over. And at times, the plot would take various detours for a week or two, and you’d get Conrad Grayson from Revenge trading kids to the aliens.
But for all those problems, there’s still a lot to like about Falling Skies. The performances are solid, particularly from Noah Wyle, Will Patton, and Colin Cunningham; the atmosphere of an Earth invaded is well-rendered; and the special effects are better than expected. More generally, though, I find there’s a sense of optimism to the show that’s lacking in post-apocalyptic shows like The Walking Dead, trading an overwhelming sense of despair for a scrappy, can-do spirit on the part of the human resistance. There’s still a fair share of sadness and paranoia amongst the survivors, but there’s still something hopeful in the show’s attitude, the feeling of “It’s tough, but we’re gonna win this one.” (It also helps that unlike Walking Dead, I’m not actively rooting for every character to shut up and die painfully.)
So if, like me, you enjoyed Falling Skies last season despite its flaws, you’ll likely enjoy the second season because the premiere indicates more of the same, with some of the rougher edges sanded down. As with the series premiere and first season finale, “Worlds Apart” and “Shall We Gather At The River” don’t have the feel of a two-part episode, more of TNT stringing two episodes together for the purpose of a double feature. It’s three months after the events of the season finale, which saw resistance second-in-command Tom Mason accepting the offer of one of the TLAs (Tall Lanky Aliens as Ryan dubbed them last season, though the promotional materials tell me they’re referred to as “overlords”) to discuss the conflict in detail.
Since then, the 2nd Massachusetts has converted to a mobile force, living a more nomadic existence and engaging in bait-and-switch conflicts to wipe out alien patrols one by one. The show as a rule tends to work better when it’s on the move—last season’s elementary school base didn’t exactly fall into being stuck on a farm Walking Dead-style, but there was definitely a sense that the invasion’s threat was subdued the longer the characters spent in headquarters. They’re moving to stay alive, and each of the episodes has a set objective everyone works toward, with the personal dramas playing out alongside those plots, as opposed to taking center stage. “Worlds Apart” has the resistance trying to figure out a way to keep their vehicles off the radar so they can keep moving, while “Shall We Gather At The River” focuses on the obstacle of a broken bridge and the unknown on the other side.
This sense of mobility also means that we get more alien versus human action, something the show’s always better for the more it adds. “Worlds Apart” opens with a firefight in the alleys of ruined Boston, riders on motorcycles drawing the aliens into a trap, rocket launchers blowing apart mechs, and skitters getting impaled with knives and tire irons. The end of “Shall We Gather at The River” has a particularly harrowing moment as the resistance desperately tries to hold the line against mech fire, only to be overrun, with skitters living up to their name as they move over. There’s more direct action with the alien “beamer” ships as the humans are starting to shoot them down, and also our first glimpse of inside the alien command center—a somewhat spartan affair, but dominated by bio-mechanical engines and the imperious presence of the TLA overlord.
The episodes also manage to be smart in the execution, particularly in one scene when a mech patrol moves past a medical station where Anne and Lourdes are fighting to save Tom’s life. We see the searchlights and hear the servos turning but never see the mechs, only the tense resistance fighters as the lights move over their faces. That’s a trick Spielberg perfected in Jaws, where a scene is scarier for what you don’t see than what you do, and it’s a solid strategy to take.
Of course, a large part of the premiere has to deal with the fallout from Tom’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind decision. Largely told through Tom’s coma-induced flashbacks—a coma induced by a stray bullet—we get our first glimpse of the alien command, and while we’re still no closer to understanding why the aliens came, we can see they’ve got no interest in negotiation. (When you introduce yourselves as “the ones who will decide if your world lives or dies,” it’s pretty clear you do not come in peace.) When Tom rejects their offer to relocate humans to internment camps, he’s promptly dumped off in Michigan and treks back to Boston to reunite with the 2nd Mass. Once he gets back there, though, the tension doesn’t end, as he’s gripped with continual doubts about the gaps in his memory and what the aliens may have done to him.
Tom’s obviously the hero of this story, but in depicting him as such, Robert Rodat and company are running the risk of idealizing him a bit too much. Particularly in these two episodes he comes across as almost too selfless of a person, because “That’s what people are supposed to do.” He risks his life to save a young girl in Michigan and later insists he be tied up because he thinks he’s a threat. Thankfully the writers avoid the skid for the most part, largely because Noah Wyle’s an actor who comes across as innately decent in most of his roles, and he’s able to sell some of the character’s cornier moments, such as his threat to the overlord: “I would be careful about drawing too many lessons from the past. Because our history has yet to be written.” Sure, Tom’s got his share of ridiculous dialogue, but it’s in keeping with the show’s attitude, and (more importantly) it’s exactly what the character would say.
The other characters are chiefly as they were last season, but there’s also a sense that they’ve matured as a result of three more months of war, which is a refreshing thing to see. Weaver’s still stubborn as hell but now more aware of his limitations. Anne’s hardened herself up as a result of losing so many patients. Lourdes has done away with her crush on Ben and toned down her demonstrations of faith, and soldiers like Dai, Anthony, and Jimmy aren’t any more fleshed out but are given enough screentime that we can pick them out of a lineup. Thankfully, Pope, the show’s most interesting character, hasn’t changed too much. He isstill distrusted by everybody but is too valuable as an alien hunter to lose, and he’s gathered a band of like-minded individuals known as “Berserkers.” A large part of his arc in “Shall We Gather At The River” fixates on his inherent distrust of Tom post-alien negotiation, a tension I find more interesting than Tom’s own fears of what the aliens did to him.
Most encouraging, Tom’s two older sons are still some of the show’s stronger characters. In a time where teenage boys comprise the most annoying characters on television—all three of the Spielberg shows I mentioned earlier have particularly awful examples—Hal and Ben aren’t annoying at all, and praise is due to Drew Roy and Connor Jessup for avoiding this. Hal remains a good character this season, more active in both leadership and flirtation with Maggie, and his confident bearing increases an already uncanny resemblance to Wyle. Ben I’m a little less certain of, given the rather angsty place the show took his character in these episodes, though shooting your father accidentally falls under special circumstances. Hopefully given his unique predicament—the harness process has continued to invest him with superhuman abilities—he’ll deal with it in more novel ways.
Speaking of the harness process, one thing that clearly has gotten better between seasons is the show’s imagery. Ben’s gradual skitter conversion is now manifesting as patches of scaly skin spreading across his back, and part of the second episode deals with an electronic parasite (shades of The Matrix) crawling around in Tom’s eye. The scene in which Anne and Lourdes extract it is particularly cringe-worthy, and the later scene where it escapes and crawls over an unknowing Lourdes’ arm and hair before taking flight even more so. And perhaps creepiest of all, we’ve got our first hints of a recurring villain, an ugly skitter I’ve dubbed Scarface for his half-burned face and glazed-over red eye, who seems to hate Tom with a passion and is now following the group just out of range (and absorbing Tom’s metal parasite into his own eye for added creepiness factor).
It’s a good move for the story—harnessed kids aside the alien hordes were a faceless menace in the first season, and giving us a regular antagonist helps give the conflict more personal stakes. And given the way Tom and Ben have been so noticeably changed by the conflict, odds are good those stakes will only continue to rise on both sides, a move that will hopefully let Falling Skies find a new gear in its sophomore outing.
- Who’s out: Elderly radio repairman Scott and his wife are dead, and harnessed kid turned alien convert Rick has gone missing. No great loss, but I am amused by the perfunctory way the show explains their absence: Anne indicates a wall of pictures she keeps so they’re not forgotten.
- Who’s in: Jamil (played by Brandon Jay McLaren, last seen as Bennet Ahmed on The Killing) joins the resistance as the resident tech expert and a love interest for Lourdes. There iso real background for him yet or an explanation of where he came from, but we know he’s legit: He built Lego cities in his basement!
- Good to see the show continues to add little details of how the world first reacted to the alien presence. Tonight gives us Mona Lisa graffiti with an enlarged cortex.
- Also appreciated: the little stories people in the resistance tell to keep each other going. “No, it’s true; Dylan’s alive! He’s holed up in a mine shaft in Minnesota, rewriting his protest songs into war ballads!”
- Tom finds a duffel bag full of bundles of $100 bills, which serves only as heat to warm his hands and cook a can of beans. Priorities do change in the new world, don’t they?
- Pope’s philosophy: “Life hands you lemons, you blow its freaking head off!”
- Flirtation in the post-apocalypse: “What’s next: his and hers grenade launchers?”
- Anne and Weaver discussing Tom’s return: “He’s gonna be proud we’re still fighting.” “He might even have a historical anecdote to put it all in perspective.”
- Ben’s attitude to wartime: “You hold onto your hate, and they can never change you.”
- Anne, serving as avatar for the audience: “Tom Mason. I’m getting damn tired of losing you.”