When I saw the promos for Falling Skies, like a lot of you, I thought: "FINALLY! Those librarian action hero tv movies I didn't bother to watch were NOT ENOUGH! MOAR NOAH WYLE!"
I'd heard the show was overly clichéd, but I didn't let that deter me, as I am the one who not only watched Smallville, but wrote a comic strip about watching Smallville. I can put up with terrible as long as it's entertaining for a while. Unfortunately, as you will learn through the following review which will include numerous references to Jericho, and why Jericho was superior, and why the hell couldn't we just cast Noah Wyle on Jericho for chrissakes, TNT could've just picked up Jericho, Jericho Jericho, where was I? Oh yeah, so being overly clichéd doesn't necessarily make for entertainingly bad television.
(Warning, I get spoilery when I get ranty. If you haven't seen the show yet -- all of which is available on TNT's website -- maybe skip this review.)
I've now seen six episodes -- seven, if you count the two hour pilot as two separate episodes, which you probably shouldn't, as the first episode was wicked boring -- and I can't say I'm enjoying the show much. It either has to be so bad it's funny, or good enough to keep me engaged, and this show is neither. And even worse? It's kind of a disappointment.
The assembled cast is a good mix of veteran tv actors, like Wyle, Colin Cunningham, Will Patton, and Bruce Gray. It also includes some actors I just love to see, like Steven Weber, Dale Dye and Sarah Carter (who was the "meteor freak of the week" turned one-time Clark Kent girlfriend on Smallville.) I even like Moon Bloodgood, whose only other work I'm familiar with is the Terminator sequel we probably shouldn't talk about.
The problem is, unlike other post-apocalyptic shows, like the rebooted Battlestar Galactica or Jericho, Falling Skies lacks the urgency, the pace, the intelligence, and the dialogue of those other stories. "33" and "Water," the first two episodes out of the gate for BSG, were riveting. Granted -- they dealt with the fallout of a first wave of invasions that knocked the human race on its ass. Falling Skies picks up quite a while after all the initial alien invasionry, which probably saved them a lot of money in special F/X, but didn't grant them any favors in the script-writing department.
The glowing spine thing never figured largely in to BSG after the first season, and the "harnesses" on Falling Skies don't ever really glow like this. But clearly TNT was going for something with their promo, don't you think?
Maybe they thought since everyone has seen the "What do you do during a cataclysmic event?" movies and tv shows, the audience could just skip past that stuff without any confusion. That's not a bad assumption. The problem Falling Skies deals with is, the first half of the pilot now has to catch everyone up to where they are -- what the aliens are, how they attack humans, how they're taking teenagers hostage and "harnessing" them with some sort of brainwashing spinal implant -- and all that exposition makes for a boring hour of television. The second half of the pilot was written by Justified creator Graham Yost, and directed by Smallville and Heroes veteran Greg Beeman, and was considerably more entertaining than the first, so I held out hope for a little while longer.
But then you have your obnoxious characters that fill out some sort of checklist for apocalyptic stories. Haggard mostly-drunk doctor type? Check. (The criminally underrated Steven Weber, whose work on Studio 60 was the one of the only things I liked about that show.) Overly religious "It'll all get better if we just pray real hard!" character? Check. Earnest "I've Just Got To Find My Son!" Regular-Joe-Now-Super-Soldier type? Absolute checkmark, that's Noah Wyle's character, who is just full of flaws, but not actually in the way you'd expect.
For instance: In a scene from the second (but really, third) episode, Noah Wyle confronts Steven Weber about leaving Wyle's wife behind during an alien attack. Apparenly Wyle's character, Tom, was supposed to go forage for food with Weber (Dr. Harris), but Tom overslept, so his wife went instead, and now she's dead. He blames Weber for running away like a coward and leaving his wife to be fried by the aliens.
This is apparently a total lapse of memory about his own actions. What he can't remember is the first five minutes of the pilot where he leaves behind two soldiers that are pinned down by the aliens. I mean, literally, he cowers under a pile of rubble and hides while his teenaged son tries to crawl out and help their fallen fighter friends. Tom drags his son back into hiding with him and they leave the other soldiers for dead. Then they run away.
Steven Weber's character of course was not there for that scene, and thus can't call Wyle out on it, but the audience sure can. Is that the point? Was the audience supposed to see Tom for the spectacular hypocrite he is? Or maybe we're just supposed to think he's so moved by his desire to stay alive for his children, he's a much better person than Dr. Harris, who ran away and hid because it's a goddamn alien invasion.
I must have dreamed up the exchange between them when Harris points out to Tom that maybe they didn't survive the apocalypse because they're better people, maybe they survived to become better people, because I can't find that scene now. I did re-watch this:
Harris: "There are people who actually think that surviving the first wave of the invasion proves that they're the best of mankind."
Tom: "Obviously you don't agree?"
Harris: "Well, those people who ran away? Who found the deepest holes to hide in? They're survivors. If you find something enobling about that, I'd love to hear about it."
...which is actually a very stupid segue in to Tom punching Harris for running away and finding the deepest hole to hide in. He just told you that he doesn't think he's a hero for doing it, and he's apologized several times for running away and leaving Tom's wife to die. He gets punched anyway.
They go through your average problems while running from the aliens, which is lack of food, water, medicine, shelter. Eventually they find an abandoned high school to hide their 400 refugee-strong group. (How this high school somehow avoids detection from the aliens is a detail I seem to have missed.) They're able to start a missing kids board, which is of course a complete lift of the BSG "missing" board, which was at the time a tribute to the 9/11 "missing" fences surrounding Ground Zero. Sure, they probably would start a "missing" campaign... if they weren't running for their lives from the aliens. (I don't get why they find this high school and immediately move in like it's their forever dream home and not just a base of operations until they have to run away some more.)
This is part of the problem I have with this show, which is that the characters behave in the way science fiction characters have typically been written to behave in this situation, but not in the way they probably would behave. The remarkable thing about Jericho was the little details that could be easily missed. I am still amazed by the actor (or director, or writer's) decision to include a moment in a Jericho episode where, when everyone rushes outside to see what's happening, one character takes the time to put out the candles left burning in the house. They're struggling to survive, they don't have electricity, and they certainly don't have unlimited candle supply or a means to rebuild their home if it accidentally burns down. It was a two second gesture that helped cement for me the incredibly smart writing of Jericho.
I keep expecting unexpected things to happen. I figured the reason we harped on Dr. Harris running away and mysteriously vanishing during the invasion was that he was going to turn out to be a double crossing alien-conspirator. But... he wasn't. Then Henry Czerny shows up and why, WHY DOES ANYONE TRUST HENRY CZERNY? His turncoat nature is a certainty -- like Sean Bean dying a horrific death.
So why then would they make him the double crossing alien conspirator? That seems completely obvious! And he admits he has no kids and has no idea what it's like to lose a child AND THEN GOES "Oh, by the way, GIMME ALL YOUR KIDS." ...and the amazing part is, after about five minutes of protest from the parents in the group, they give up all their kids.
This was not even the most mind-boggling event in the show so far. A covert operation to break in to a hospital and grab a bunch of "harnessed" teenagers (including Tom's kid) is planned. Tom and his son are practicing using crossbows, because that seems to be the silent way to kill an alien guarding teenagers at a hospital. Sarah Carter's character walks up and has to show them how to use the crossbows. They suck at it. She tells them to get close so they don't miss. At no point does either of the guys realize "Hey, she is also a soldier, perhaps alien crossbow duty should fall to her, since she knows how to shoot a crossbow."
THEN, she tells them the best way to sneak in to the hospital in the dark, because she's spent a great deal of time in that particular building and knows her way around. AND STILL, NO ONE RECOMMENDS THAT SHE JOIN THE MISSION. She just eventually shows up when they're carrying out the operation. But no one says "Oh, you should take point." She hangs back and does none of the things she so obviously is qualified to do. Instead we send in "Hal", Tom's eldest son, because he apparently looks like he's 14. (He's actually 25, by the way.) (At least he kind of looks like Wyle.) (Sorta.)
Are you seeing this shit? They still didn't even give her a crossbow.
Anyway, there's a Falling Skies webcomic that apparently connects to another comic handed out at New York Comic Con?
I've read the four pages that are available, and they're neither good nor bad. But I like Paul Tobin and am hoping that maybe eventually the web comic will clear up some confusion I have about the show. Not necessarily plot holes -- character holes, I guess.
As far as character development on the show goes... Does someone become a pill addict? Oh, definitely. Does someone have an emotional breakdown about how their kid is missing? Like, every five minutes. I don't doubt these things happen in real life, it's just in real life, they happen in different ways. If you want a better portrayal of pill addiction, see: Southland. If you want a better portrayal of dealing with post traumatic stress, see: Treme.
There are only two episodes of Falling Skies left, but I don't know that they're going to wow me. At least the story is more interesting whenever "Pope" (played by Colin Cunningham) is around. But one kind of good character and a flimsy plot about the kids not wanting to be unharnessed is not really going to keep me around for season two. They're going to have to try a LOT harder during the finale then they have been.