Falling Skies features Apocalyptic Noah Wyle!

The quote with which I’ve chosen to title this review deserves a bit of analysis. First off, I don’t use it because the show is bad but shows signs of improvement. I use it because it is sort of the mission statement of the show, which is not light-hearted but certainly hopeful about the bleak shit stacked against the survivors of the human species after a devastating alien invasion. I guess you might say I use it also because, if it keeps getting as much right as it did in its two-part pilot, Falling Skies certainly is gonna get (even) better.

What will immediately suck you in to the tone of this show is that it opens with kids delivering the exposition necessary to set up this world. Wait, no, that sounds wrong. I forgot to mention that it’s kids with their fucked up drawings of people and family being murdered by sinister green grasshoppers. So this means that it is an awesome way to open this new show, suggesting what matters most (the kids, because they are the future in every sense) and the real horror of what’s happened. We learn that the aliens mopped the the floor with us by first EMPing all our infrastructure and then taking out every significant military presence in the world, then destroying all the major cities. We also learn that they are up to more than simply extermination… they seem to be kidnapping and “harnessing” children for some mysterious purpose.

With that out of the way, we get into a very realized version of a militarized society on the ropes in a losing guerrilla war with an advanced species of reptilian/insectoid aliens. The way the exposition about the state of the war effort is more classical (set up by the leaders of this rogue group as they decide to split up to avoid detection) balances nicely with the more unusual and bold opening. The aliens have started to detect groups larger than 500 so it’s necessary to splinter further and become more mobile, though some characters disagree and want to stay in Boston (Massachusetts is the setting for at least this part of the show) to fight. We learn that the aliens’ motherships have left the planet, leaving behind garrisons that occupy cities from massive tower-like structures. Everyone thinks the ships will be back someday and that victory will be completely out of reach by then. The situation seems rather hopeless, but certain characters cling to a kind of hope for the sake of their children.

The aliens are seriously creepy and believable, the mix of CG and practical effects contributing to movie-level quality. The “mechs”, bipedal walking tanks used by the aliens as shock troops, are less so but probably no worse than the Cylon centurions in Battlestar Galactica. Well… I suppose your mileage may vary since they stuck out rather badly in one daylight scene. It’s okay, though, I’m just happy having a show with enough sense of scale to even bother including alien mechs.

Scale is something the show understands and is able to convey. We definitely don’t have The Road levels of bleak decay, but this is only six months after the invasion. People are still able to remember their lives before and, at least at this point, it isn’t hard to imagine why they’d still be fairly together in some fundamental ways. Of course, this isn’t a show where the best verisimilitude they can pull off is to have everyone feel like they’re pretending it’s the apocalypse. Little touches like the way the doctor (Moon Bloodgood) gets the kids drawing and talking to process their experiences, or the way Tom (Noah Wyle) recalls his former life as a history professor to instill much-needed hope in his “troops”, are very effective at keeping up an authentic feeling. I don’t know how it’ll bear out in the long run, but for now it’s commitment to realism feels about right. I mean, there are child soldiers for fuck’s sake.

Since I touched on the casting there for a minute, let’s talk a bit more about that. In the two episodes I watched, none of the characters we’ve been introduced to really stood out very far. This seems likely a result of a long-view approach to building these characters up. There’s also a sense of peril because one of the guys who seems like they’ll be around to pad out the crew Tom seems to spend the most time with dies in the second part. It was shocking enough of a move for the show that I kept thinking he’d miraculously survive. But he didn’t. So good on you, Falling Skies, for offering some stakes.

The one exception to what I said about no one standing out is John Pope, played to scene-stealing perfection by Colin Cunningham, a long-time television mainstay.

Doesn’t look like a guy who’d debate philosophy with you before killing you, does he? Well that’s why he’s so awesome.

Pope is a character I hope sticks around. His fatalist outlaw thing (he brandishes a sword and a sixgun!!!) is a nice foil for Tom’s intellectual leader thing. They are destined to be awesome frenemies, much like Boyd Crowder and Raylan Givens in Justified. At least I hope the showrunners are smart enough to capitalize on the great chemistry these two had in their scenes together. You really feel like they are intellectual equals with extremely opposed points of view. But you can also tell that they see value in each other. It’s an interesting dynamic and the only one that wasn’t shorted by touches of the generic. I may be unfair to the Tom and Doctor Anne thing where they flirt by talking like they are still living the old way, but I’ve seen that before. They are definitely going to have a simmering romance blah blah blah. Tom’s a good dad but so far he’s a good dad in a heroic, archetypal sense. You know everything you need to know about his relationship with his sons by the end of the first part. I think that there is room to make this interesting and that perhaps getting the obvious stuff out of the way this fast is a good sign. Of course, it may be that they drag out their version of son-who-is-more-like-the-father-than-either-will-admit tension with Hal, his oldest, all season long. I will be disappointed if that’s the case. Though I do expect the too-cute-for-the-apocalypse other kid to stay exactly as is for at least the season.

Anyway, while watching the show I was surprised at how good it was. Maybe I am reacting more to the potential it has than what was actually delivered, but I don’t think so. In a year that is overstocked with alien invasion yarns, Falling Skies did not feel boring or “me too”. A little more Spielbergian sentimentality than other, similar shows, maybe. I hope to see some “sense of wonder” stuff too then, Steve. Otherwise this show functions as a very nice companion piece to War of the Worlds. Different aliens, maybe, but a similar feeling groundedness and immediacy that can only be brought on by casting regular people as the only soldiers left in a world gone pear-shaped.

I hope they don’t push the “proud history of American warfighting” angle more than they have, but the show’s awareness of military history is welcome. It is also a potential liability unless they have someone point out to Tom that this, being an alien invasion, probably has a different set of basic fundamentals than any other conflict he feels like name-checking to sew some morale. Does he know this? I hope he does.

I also hope we get satisfactory and engaging payoffs to the two major mysteries set up by these opening episodes: why are the alien mechs bipedal? What’s up with the kidnapped kids and harnesses?

To be honest, I was surprised and delighted at the bipedal mechs mystery as well as some credence paid to that these aliens have weird attitudes toward animals and that the humans, in spite of their blam blam blam kill em all chatter, can summon curiosity for their enemies in spite of the totally irreconcilable situation with them. There is definitely a lot of interesting groundwork being laid here for the “mythology” of the show. If they can buff up the character elements a bit more, this stands to be something really special.

Also, the gunfights could use a bit of work. That warehouse scene was just embarrassing for poor Tom who has as good of aim as a Stormtrooper apparently. I get the idea that these are civvies-turned-soldiers but c’moonnnn. I suppose I should be grateful that there even are actual gunfights in this show. So many others hint at the violence and never deliver.

Whether Falling Skies can truly deliver on all its promise remains to be seen but I will be watching to find out. It earned that much with the opening scene.