I suspect that one of the words you’ll frequently see in reviews of TNT’s “Falling Skies” is “solid.”
That doesn’t sound rhapsodic, does it? You’d never describe yourself as “solid” in an online dating profile. A publicist will almost never tout a new client as being a “solid” young actor. Even with things where you’d think “solid” would be the highest of compliments — the foundation of a house, a well-boiled egg — embellishments are still usually in order.
“Falling Skies” is a Frankenshow. My notes on the first seven episodes are filled with similarities and discrete nods to over a dozen different movies and TV shows and books, some so blatant as to be homages, some just the inevitable reality of doing a show that melds several well-traveled genres. Back in the early 19th Century, imitation may have been the sincerest form of flattery, but in the 21st Century, imitation isn’t enough. Pastiche is the sincerest form of flattery and “Falling Skies” spreads its flattery around liberally.
If you’re a Frankenshow, cobbling together the pieces is the easy part. The challenge is making them cohere. The challenge is crafting a spine or a through-line that’s strong enough to hold all of the familiar bits together as something that probably won’t be unique, but can still be distinctive.
So for me, when I say that “Falling Skies” is solid, it’s intended with a fair measure of respect. “Falling Skies” holds together and despite the myriad pieces you’ll recognize from or associate with its predecessors, it stands on its own as a fun and, yes, solid summer action drama.
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In the opening minutes, “Falling Skies” dispatches with an alien invasion. In short, the aliens arrived and they were not of peace. Ever. They killed many, enslaved a number of children using Cronenberg-esque bio-tech harnesses and they’ve basically made life rather unpleasant for the remaining survivors. Beyond conquering, what do they want? Where did they come from? What are they still doing here? To be revealed…
We pick up with the human underground just outside of Boston. They’re dirty and scruffy and they’re in coping mode. Stripped of electricity and advanced communications and all of the niceties of modern society, they’re concentrating on finding food, finding necessary supplies and not dying, rather than fighting back. There’s a military component to everything they’re doing with Dale Dye and William Patton playing the representative soldiers, who know it’s their responsibility to protect the civilians, but can’t avoid expressing their impatience with this imposition.
Straddling the military/civilian line is Tom Mason (Noah Wyle), a former BU history professor who has gained comfort with a gun, but is still much more at-ease lecturing anybody who will listen on the synchronicity between their current experience and any number of past instances in which an undermanned force was able to successfully beat back an occupying army. Tom is looking out for the civilians, but also for his family, which features an older son with fighting aspirations (Drew Roy) and a younger kid who just wants to be a kid. Tom has a third son who went missing and may be one of the many children under alien control.
Among the other civilians we find pediatrician Anne (Moon Bloodgood), a widower like Tom, plus former nursing student Lourdes (Seychelle Gabriel) and kick-butt action girl Karen (Jessy Schram), who form a bit of a love triangle with Roy’s Hal.
Picking up essentially in the middle of the action was a great move by “Falling Skies” creator Robert Rodat and the production team, led by Steven Spielberg, who won an Oscar back in the day for directing Rodat’s “Saving Private Ryan” script.
Starting post-invasion spares the production the expense and scale of showing an invasion, aware that nothing they could do would equal the opening half of Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” (there’s a great half of a movie there, even if things go haywire at the end). It also saves the show the need to be coy about the aliens. They’re here. They’re alien. Our heroes have gotten used to it. We’re introduced to our first Skitter before the opening credits. They’re powerful, many-legged scurrying alien creatures that look a bit like other aliens you’ve seen before, but not so slavishly mimeographed that you’d accuse anyone of design theft. You also don’t have to wait long to see the Mechs, the giant robots that either contain Skitters or are controlled by them. Either way, “Falling Skies” isn’t precious about depicting its adversaries. And the effects are good, albeit with predictable caveats: The Skitters look much better than the Mechs and both CG creations look better either in darkness or, interestingly, in close-up. The effects definitely aren’t a liability and our exposure to them isn’t being limited because the creative team is ashamed by what a TV budget can accomplish.
Alien exposure is being parsed out because the writers really do want “Falling Skies” to be a story of how normal people deal with a horrible and unthinkable thing. In this respect, “Falling Skies” is much more interested in being “Jericho” than being the recent reboot of “V,” two earlier shows that pop up in my notes more than a few times.
Many people have their fingerprints on what “Falling Skies” aspires to be. Rodat loves his history and every time Tom begins a lecture about the Revolutionary War, you’re reminded that “Falling Skies” comes from the writer of “The Patriot,” though some of that history infusion could also come from “The Pacific” and “Band of Brothers” veteran Graham Yost, an executive producer and writer of the second episode. When the drama turns to plucky young kids and fathers trying to recover/reconnect with their sons, somebody was praying to the altar of St. Spielberg. And tying everything together is Mark Verheiden, showrunner for much of the season, whose background on “Battlestar Galactica” almost certainly accounts for the shades of New Caprica that constantly pop up.
With a show of this sort, the viewer instinct is almost always going to be preferring action over domestic melodrama or poorly integrated romance, so “Falling Skies” is wise enough to follow the playbook rule that Spielberg and Conrad Birdie share: Audiences can sense if the writers aren’t invested in the human side of the storytelling, so your best bet is to commit and be sincere and hope that people don’t cringe.
There will be some cringing from “Falling Skies” fans, but the writers avoid pushing any sign of sentiment too far. No, the teen love triangle isn’t spectacularly convincing, but Roy, Schram and Gabriel play it straight and the writers don’t wallow. Similarly, although Bloodgood and Wyle are the two prettiest people on screen, they aren’t pushed into an awkward romance. Instead, Wyle is totally convincing as the father-trying-to-make-good and Bloodgood has a good handle on a character trying to hold it together for the good of her community, but repressing some deep emotional scars. The time we’re spending with the human characters also leads to discussions hinging on religion, philosophy, politics and basically anything else that would be likely points-of-drama with a group of strangers in heightened circumstances. “Falling Skies” is a “What would you do? How would you react?” show and viewers are invited to play their own “What if?” games with the speculative fiction.
I hate to return again to that word, but the cast around Wyle and Bloodgood is also solid, avoiding the sort of weak links or poorly interpreted characters who can throw an ensemble like this out of balance. The characters also show more shading as the episodes pass, so don’t write-off Will Patton as playing The Contemptuous Military Guy. It’s a better role than that and Patton, as always, is able to add extra dimension, even if the writing isn’t there yet. Praise is also due to Colin Cunningham and Sarah Carter, whose characters arrive in the second hour of the premiere two-parter. Later episodes feature appearances by reliable character types like Steven Webber and Henry Czerny, whose presence just reenforces the “This isn’t just about the aliens and running and screaming” credo.
The storytelling in “Falling Skies” is patient and methodical, but there’s a progressing narrative. The first seven episodes I’ve seen don’t move as quickly as more adrenaline-starved viewers might hope for, but every episode contains at least one effectively tense set-piece and you also come away feeling like you’ve learned things about both our human characters and, very gradually, the alien invaders. Most of the things we learn call to mind past alien invasion/apocalpyse survival dramas, but not all.
Want to know a few of the other pop culture favorites made appearances in my notes over the seven episodes? AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” John Carpenter’s “The Thing.” BBC America’s “Survivors.” Stephen King’s “The Stand.” The zombie drama “28 Days Later.” The John Wyndham novels “The Day of the Triffids” and “The Midwich Cuckoos.” “Independence Day.” And those fictional nods are on top of any real-world resonances that are seemingly unavoidable in a post-9/11 world. Add those to the previously mentioned nods and the many linkages you’re sure to notice that I didn’t and you should have a pretty good sense if “Falling Skies” fits into a tradition you enjoy. And if it does, I think there’s a good chance you’ll also find “Falling Skies” a worthy diversion, especially as it moves into the Sunday evening vacuum created by the finales of “The Killing” and, particularly, “Game of Thrones.”