I used to go to a restaurant that served this chicken dish that arrived at your table engulfed in blue flames. The first time I saw it, my eyes grew three sizes and I thought, “I like chicken, I like fire, I should get that.” When I actually tasted it, the dish was pretty mediocre, but that didn’t stop me from trying it several more times, nor from ordering food-on-fire dishes at other places. The idea seemed so great that my mind simply couldn’t accept that the actuality of it was only occasionally good.
TNT’s “Falling Skies” (Sunday at 9 p.m. on TNT) an alien invasion drama produced by Steven Spielberg, seemed like an ideal candidate to be a flaming chicken dish. It’s combination that once upon a time would have seemed fantastic, but where my expectations have been lowered by too many mediocre Spielberg TV projects that seemed like he lent his name and little else, and by too many terrible alien invasion series like “V” and “The Event.”
But it turns out that “Falling Skies” is that rare time where the chicken tastes as good as it looks. It’s a sci-fi series with a heavy focus on character and story (but also with good action when it’s called for), and a Spielberg TV show where you can see his fingerprints in the work.
The debut episode smartly skips over the invasion entirely. We’ve seen too many of them – usually in movies with much higher budgets than even a Spielberg-backed cable drama has – for it to be of any interest. Instead, we see the invasion as depicted in a series of kids’ crayon drawings, and the basic premise – that the aliens came, wiped out our cities and military, and started abducting teenagers to use as brainwashed slave labor, so that “Now moms and dads have to fight” – described by those kids. It’s much more effective, and chilling, and nicely sets up the family dynamic that’s at the heart of the show (just as it’s often at the heart of Spielberg’s sci-fi epics). Between that introduction and the action sequence that follows it, it’s as strong an initial impression as any show of this type has made on me in a long time.
Noah Wyle (sporting the controversial beard he wore on occasion in his “ER” days) plays Tom Mason, a Boston history professor pressed into combat duty when the aliens – a bunch of creepy-looking insect/spider hybrids that people take to calling “skitters” – kill his wife and abduct his middle son. As the series begins, he’s latched onto a makeshift version of the 2nd Massachusetts Regiment, which is a mixture of aging (if not retired) military veterans like Will Patton’s Weaver, willing civilians like Tom, and even some kids. Tom’s oldest son Hal (Drew Roy), a high school lacrosse player before the invasion, often functions as his unit’s second-in-command, and their unit also features a 13-year-old named Jimmy who’s good with a rifle in his hands.
Tom’s goals are at once simple – stay alive, protect Hal and youngest son Matt (Maxim Knight), and find abducted son Ben (Connor Jessup) – and complicated, in that he, unlike Weaver, believes there’s a way to take the planet back from the skitters.
“History is full of inferior forces causing so much trouble the invading force leaves,” Tom lectures his skeptical troops at one point.
(It’s an occasionally tiresome character quirk that he’s often applying lessons from the Revolutionary War, or earlier, to their current dilemma, but the show at least has a sense of humor about it. When his historical examples fail to inspire anybody, he reminds them of the 2004 Red Sox, and they all get on board.)
Though the premiere’s first hour was written by “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Patriot” screenwriter Robert Rodat, and the second by “The Pacific” veteran (and “Justified” showrunner) Graham Yost, the man actually in charge of the first season is Mark Verheiden from “Battlestar Galactica.” And “Falling Skies” has some obvious “BSG” overtones, specifically in how it follows a small, badly equipped band of humans on the run from aliens who wiped out most of their race, and in how it dwells on tensions between the military and civilian survivors, here represented primarily by Moon Bloodgood as pediatrician Anne Glass, whose husband and son died in the invasion. There’s even a 9/11-style memorial wall of photos of the missing and dead, just like the one the Galactica crew erected.
But even more than subject matter, “Falling Skies” is reminiscent of early “BSG” in its grounded storytelling and characterization. This is a show that understands that fantastic stories and fancy visual effects don’t mean a lick if the people within them don’t actually seem like people.
Where the characters on “V,” “The Event,” “FlashForward,” et al remained stuck somewhere between archetype and cardboard cut-out, most of the key players on “Falling Skies” seem like flesh-and-blood human beings. They’re none of them incredibly complex – Wyle isn’t playing the sci-fi version of Don Draper – but they have flaws and quirks and aspirations, even within this horrible post-apocalyptic landscape. Hal is a cocky teenager, but he isn’t The Cocky Teenager as Plot Device; he makes mistakes and argues with his father sometimes, but he’s also usually useful and isn’t constantly stumbling into trouble to cause conflict in that week’s episode.
“Falling Skies” is pulp fiction, but it’s very effective pulp fiction. The performances for the most part hover in the range of “solid,” with Wyle the only castmember who consistently gets to show big emotions, and he’s as excellent at the heart-on-sleeve stuff here as he was when he played John Carter. Bloodgood is also strong when she gets a chance to; she’s done a lot of sci-fi over the years (“Daybreak,” “Journeyman,” “Terminator: Salvation”) and more often than not isn’t asked to do anything but look stunning and be mysterious, but here she’s quite good at showing Anne struggling to power through her grief and get through the day-to-day.
The stories tend to be straightforward but well-told: a series of missions that provide standalone stories each week while advancing the larger story of the humans learning how to fight the skitters.
Your mileage will likely vary on the regular doses of Spielberg-style sentiment, as most of the episodes feature at least one climactic scene where Tom and one of his sons try to briefly capture a feeling of normalcy (say, playing lacrosse). But that longing for a world that’s been destroyed and may not be salvageable is a key part of what this show is about and what these characters are fighting for, and when you’ve lost so much, a chance to play lacrosse for a couple of minutes feels like everything.
“Falling Skies” is exactly what you’d expect it to be, only a very good example of it (and is at its best in Sunday’s pilot), and an ideal summer series. For once, Spielberg and company got it right on the small screen.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com