Mania Grade: B+
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- Episode: Live and Learn
- Starring: Noah Wylie, Will Patton, Colin Cunningham, Moon Bloodgood, Sarah Carter, Connor Jessup and Mpho Koaho
- Written by: Robert Rodat
- Directed by: Carl Franklin
- Network: TNT
Mania TV Review: Falling Skies
You too can be a guerilla fighter!
By Rob Vaux
June 17, 2011
The most important names associated with Falling Skies actually aren't Steven Spielberg's, though his fingerprints definitely appear all over the pilot. Instead, look to series creator Robert Rodat, who wrote Saving Private Ryan, and Graham Yost, whose Justified has been flat-out the best thing on television in the last two years. Those names can deliver a lot of grit, which Falling Skies carries in spades. The premiere episode (airing this Sunday at 9:00 PM EDT) is not as deep as it thinks it is, nor as tied to reality as it wants us to believe. But it loves both its subject matter and the desperate, cunning characters at its heart. That packs a considerable punch.
It wastes no time with the set up, plunking us down in the aftermath of an alien invasion without worrying about the big ships or the ray-beam apocalypse. We get the details through children’s drawings after the fact, or war stories delivered with obvious relish by the ensemble cast. Those low-tech methods attain a chilling resonance that no amount of CGI can match. We’re in suburban Massachusetts, occupied by small bands of partisan survivors several months after E.T. kicked our collective ass. “Retreat, regroup, return, revenge” is their motto: stay out of sight, hit back when you can, make sure everyone stays alive and wait for the right chance to stick the aliens where it hurts. Most of the partisans are former civilians, led by an ex-history professor (Noah Wylie) with one son missing and another two in his care. Everyone’s a soldier in this environment; everyone has lost more than they dreamed possible. But the position doesn’t allow the luxury of regret and the only alternative to guerilla warfare is death.
The season premiere focuses primarily on letting us soak in this world. We don’t know why the aliens are here – though they have a habit of abducting kids and sticking high-tech “harnesses” on their spines that control their movements – and nobody really cares. Humanity is too busy locating food and looking for weaknesses in the enemy to debate the esoteric stuff. Falling Skies avoids the most gruesome details of partisan life (no one’s cooking rats or executing hoarders), but finds plausibility in Wylie’s field of expertise. He’s a professor of military history, and deftly applies what he knows to such issues as the specifics of asymmetrical warfare and the needs of civilians in the shadow of military necessity. The premiere’s second half also gets considerable mileage out of the notion of human predators, and how our propensity for survival often costs us the things worth fighting for. (Keep an eye on Colin Cunningham, playing the local bandit king; he’s one of the many reasons to tune in.)
The emphasis on human life means that Falling Skies can make its money shots count. The alien “skitters” and their “mech” robots appear with almost casual indifference, and can kill us like they’re swatting flies. Yet they still bleed like we do, and the long odds makes us really appreciate the moments when our heroes take one of them down. That combination suggests real durability: that this show can tell interesting stories even when it doesn’t have the budget to throw spaceships at us every week.
As it stands, the pilot endears us to its main characters (particularly Wylie and Will Patton as his surly commander) almost instantly and hooks us on the premise with impressive efficiency. Savoring its potential is almost as much fun as watching it; with the pieces in place, it can go in any number of different directions. We’ve kind of hit rock bottom for genre shows this year. Falling Skies may be just what we need to pick ourselves back up.