Review of Falling Skies

{So if you are one of the two or three people who foolishly follow my blog, some explanation may be in order. It’s been about a month and a half since I successfully defended my craptastic dissertation, and I’m trying to live out a few of the dreams developed while I was living the ascetic life of a crappy scholar for Life After the Dissertation. One was to start blogging about the TV and film that I do so enjoy watching. Part of the craptastic dissertation was about the television show Lost, but that doesn’t in any way make me an expert about TV. What I’d like to do is to write a post about once a week about whatever I’m watching. I probably won’t cover any series episode-by-episode, but I would like to practice writing about whatever I’m watching.}

After only the double-episode premier of Falling Skies, I’m ready to declare that it’s pretty much awesome, and you should watch it. Only, please stay awesome, my new best friend, Falling Skies. Crappy old Heroes was once pretty good too, so I know how  something that starts off promising can eventually become truly terrible.

Almost everybody writing about Falling Skies has already nailed two of its strong points: (1) the story begins well after the alien invasion—some six or so months later—so we don’t have to spend initial episodes plodding through a whole bunch of familiar holy-shit-alien-invasion-apocalypse stuff that we’ve already seen (2) and the show is way more interested in the characters and their relationships than all the technical mumbo jumbo of the aliens. Sure, we may get more technical details in time, but that’s not the most important thing. These totally fantastic characters are!

Instead of repeating all the familiar conventions of alien invasion narratives, we start with what I think is a pretty brilliant opening. The camera pans across and fades in and out of a series of children’s drawings while various kids’ voices parrot what has no doubt become to them an already familiar story about the alien invasion—one probably explained to them many times by the adults. After a minute or two, the camera pulls back, to reveal the conversation between a particular kid and a woman who talks with this kid as a teacher or a counselor might. And just like that, we’ve got the bare bones of the back story of the invasion and the family dynamics shared by this kid (the adorable Maxim Knight as Matt Mason), his gun-toting history professor father Tom Mason (Noah Wyle) and brothers Hal (Drew Roy) and Ben (Connor Jessup). While Matt stays with the camp, dad Tom and Hal fight aliens, and Ben is presumed to have been enslaved by the invaders. Not only is this an efficient means of providing back story, but it does so through the lens of a child’s understanding. And oh! my! God! is there anything more heartbreaking than a young child’s completely reasonable fear that his remaining family might not still be alive come the post-alien-apocalypse version of dinner time? Zing! I’m on the hook!

That I give a crap about this fictional kid in a fictional world is what I love about Falling Skies. Another way to reframe comments about the show’s reworking of genre stereotypes and being primarily character driven is to say that this is a television program (or at least a two-hour premiere) that is concerned with craft—narrative craft. This is precisely the kind of show that gives my literary mind the fuzzy tingles and make me feel like a proud member of the Church of Television as High Art. In my unwritten and completely unnecessary manifesto of Why I Love Television in the Aftermath of the DVR, I would argue, not terribly originally, that contemporary television in the form of the serial drama is the heir of the novel, partly because it can take the time to develop a number of characters in mundane but meaningful ways.

Falling Skies is brilliant because, as thrilling as the premiere was, as much as it jumped right into the action with little exposition, it really took its time with subtle, seemingly unimportant moments. I particularly loved the tiny birthday celebration for little Matt Mason held as the 2nd Massachussets, a rebel unit made of one hundred fighters and two hundred civilians (hello military versus civilian theme!), rested on their march from the city to a new, supposedly safer location.

The celebration is simple and includes but a single cupcake, a match as a candle, and the gift of what this old bird can only call some kind of weird two-wheeled newfangled skateboard. What I love about the scene is the silence that follows as Matt tries out his new wheels and the entire regiment watches. First we see father Tom’s relief that the birthday wasn’t spoiled after all (he’d been too busy killing aliens to plan the party, but older son Hal provided the skateboard), then his joy that, OMG, his son is still a little boy who can enjoy a birthday. I mean, alien invasion or not, the well-acted, nuanced father-son relationship is a bittersweet concoction of love balanced anxiously with the fear of disappointment that I’m sure all parents must feel at one time or another. I bet there are more than a few parents who currently feel overwhelmed by the difficulty of adequately celebrating a child’s birthday in trying times, due in our society more to the economic crisis than an alien invasion. (Oh, might we read Falling Skies as a metaphor for the crushing effects a failing economy has on its citizens!?!) The camera follows Matt and then his friends as Matt shares his new toy communally with other the kids, and the whole crowd seems enraptured in an eloquent silence. When the scene came to a close, no character tidily summed it up for the audience in dialogue. Rather, Will Patton’s matter-of-fact Captain Weaver made eye contact with Tom, who announced it was time to move on. And that, sweethearts, was that.

Falling Skies trusts me with these slow moments, and in turn I trust that it’s going to take me somewhere. It doesn’t feel like the insanely complex jigsaw puzzle that FlashForward did, which was more concerned with plot than lingering on character development (hey, I liked FlashForward and its characters, but those relationships were rushed from the start–and, so far, we don’t have to juggle nearly as many characters to be emotionally invested in). But already there have been these tiny little clues that I trust are going to lead somewhere that have been revealed in what I feel like are fairly crafty, organic scenes. (OMG, the mechs have two feet, while the skitters have six! What’s that all about?)

Which leads me to my final point. My favorite thing so far about Falling Skies is how we’re given background information in what feel like organic conversations that, I think, also move the plot forward. As I already noted, the series opens with an ensemble of children’s voices recounting the version of events as they have been told. That Tom Mason was a history professor offers him ample opportunity to draw parallels between the current conflict and historical conflicts. It also affects how other people talk to him. When Dr. Anne Glass, the lovely pediatrician who has become the group’s lead physician, asks his opinion of the relationship between the military and the civilians, the conversation doesn’t just serve as commentary for the audience’s benefit; it’s also a conversation in which these two educated people find companionship and get to know each other in a way that might lay the ground for a possible future romantic relationship. Similarly, the camp’s school teacher invites Professor Mason to observe his class and discuss ideas some of the children came up with in a brainstorming session about the skitters, as they call the invading aliens.

I love that the program uses intellectual discourse not only as a problem-solving method (and I love how the camp teacher is encouraging open, critical thinking!) but also as a way of building or feeling out relationships. This is perhaps most clearly seen in the conversation had at gunpoint between the outlaw John Pope (Collin Cunningham) and Tom, as his captive, where they question each other about what they’ve learned about the aliens. As these men hint at the power each of their groups holds and feel out each other’s capacity for strategy, we learn that “skitters,” the 2nd Massachusetts’ term for the aliens is by no means universal. Pope, while resting on a high school stage littered with the iconic broken columns and state imagery of fallen civilizations and groups, tells Tom that he and his crew call the aliens “cooties.” Besides building tension between these two men, cunning leaders cut of very different cloth, this scene also reminds viewers that we don’t know if the 2nd Massachusetts is connected to a larger resistance or if all semblance of higher order has been demolished. Perhaps foreshadowing some future revelation, Pope, while clearly not as educated as Professor Tom Mason, is nonetheless a man who thinks about things, indicating that intellect finds many forms.

I think part of the reason Falling Skies is able to accomplish so much in its double episode premier is because it has actually limited what it’s trying to accomplish. We’re given just enough information about the alien invasion to understand the characters’ situation (and to get a sense that the writers know what they’re doing and that more substantial answers are on their way). This is something most emulators of Lost have failed to do. In their rush to promote the originality of their concepts and to play with time like Lost did, they often left viewers behind. FlashForward required viewers to pay attention to every little detail from its opening moments and keep track of dozens of characters, any one of which might become important from one episode to the next. NBC’s truly terrible The Event was almost unwatchable in its skipping back and forth between dozens of characters now and in the past in the space of just a few minutes.

Early on, Lost was able to maintain its focus by juxtaposing flashbacks of a single character per episode with the current island narrative and cleverly used the airplane engine sound to cue viewers to such shifts, and only very slowly, very subtly revealed its concept. Falling Skies, at least so far, lets concept take a backseat to character and thus far has resisted playing with time. At this point, I’d find a show that doesn’t play with flashback or time travel or alternate universes refreshing, and I’m about as big of a fan of Lost and Fringe as you will ever meet outside of Comic-Con (and, actually, I totally want to go. Many rooms are less than $200 a night, if you can get one when they go on sale at noon on March 9). The one moment we think we might be viewing a flashback—when the camera opens on little Matt waking up in a well-appointed child’s bedroom—we’re quickly brought back to the present when his professor father, scruffy from the march and toting a machine gun, opens the bedroom door to wake him up.

By maintaining a simple narrative timeline and focusing on developing characters the audience can empathize with, Falling Skies is laying the foundation for what could be one of the best serial dramas in years. Here’s hoping tonight’s episode maintains that momentum!

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2 thoughts on “Review of Falling Skies

  1. I don’t want to think about how many years it’s been. I am le olde. Thanks for the couchsurfing tip. I will probably be a weakling and not even try Comic-Con. So good to know you’re out there in the world!

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