Friday, September 19, 2014

'Falling Skies' Season One (2011)

Starring Noah Wylie, Moon Bloodgood and Will Patton
Created by Robert Rodat

Aliens have arrived. And they are not friendly. The first wave of attacks was devastating, knocking out machines and electronics all over the world. The second wave targeted the cities and military. In less than six months, humanity has fallen.

History professor Tom Mason (Noah Wylie) is a resistance fighter with the 2nd Massachusetts after Earth was invaded by the malevolent aliens the humans call "skitters." He fights to keep his two young sons Hal (Drew Roy) and Matt (Maxim Knight) safe, though Hal is now old enough to be a fighter himself.

The 2nd Mass is led by Captain Dan Weaver (Will Patton), and after being run out of Boston by the skitters, takes refuge in an abandoned high school in Acton. From there, they prepare for a guerrilla strike against the skitters, who have been capturing human children and attaching strange bio-mechanical devices to their spines. Removing these harnesses kills the children, until a resistance doctor figures out the secret to getting them off safely.

Tom's third son, Ben (Connor Jessup) has been taken by the skitters and fitted with a harness. When Ben is found working as a slave in a hospital not too far from the 2nd Mass' camp, Tom and the others make a bold move to rescue them. But Ben and the other children aren't quite the same after their rescue. Ben displays enhanced strength and stamina, while his friend Rick (Daniyah Ysrail) shows more sinister characteristics. Whose side is he on? Will his secret derail the resistance's plan to strike a major blow against the skitters in the heart of Boston?

Where to begin. "Falling Skies" has apparently been one of the more popular shows on basic cable's TNT network, and is gearing up for its fifth and final season. I'm not entirely certain how it is that it lasted this long, other than, perhaps, the dismal slate of other sci-fi shows it's had to contend with the last few years.

The show's plotting is basic. There are only 10 episodes in this first season and it still feels like barely anything happens. Plot twists and developments hold little weight since the show seems more interested in treacly familial sentiment. In every episode, Tom has to reveal some kind of aspirational lesson out of history to encourage his troops and his sons. Sometimes, this actually works and the show manages to cough up some genuine emotion. Most times, it just makes the show feel just as safe and saccharine as one expects from a series on TNT, regardless of its apocalyptic premise.

It's nice that the show wants to have a more optimistic view of humanity after the fall of society, and the message of using Tom's historical knowledge to teach lessons about humanity is one that sets the show apart from other sci-fi fare. The problem is that other shows one might compare it to, like "The Walking Dead" or "Battlestar Galactica" are better shows. And that's not because of the show's warmer heart, but because the quality of the writing just isn't there.

The quality of the cast is mixed. Wylie and Patton are actually pretty great, and Moon Bloodgood does pretty well as the regiment's civilian doctor, Anne Glass. But the real treat is "Stargate" veteran Colin Cunningham as Pope, an ex-con who ends up falling in with the 2nd Mass. He's the one who seems to be having the most fun, and his character gets most of the season's best lines. But the actors playing the teen and kid characters are almost uniformly awful. Pretty much every scene involving Rick and Ben is a groaner.

On a technical level, "Falling Skies" is also pretty mixed. At times, the special effects are somewhat impressive. The designs of alien creatures and their technology are cool, but occasionally don't fit well with the live-action footage surrounding them. Lighting and color in certain scenes sometimes don't match up shot to shot, either. In one shot, colors will look bold and saturated and in the next dull and gray, then back again.

Some bits don't make a whole lot of sense. For example, we're told that the aliens are capable of detecting groups of humans numbering over 500 or that they're attracted to heat. But these must be the least accurate heat sensors I've ever heard of, because the human camps are constantly lighting fires and candles and our own technology has been capable of detecting the body heat of humans for quite some years.

The show is capable of producing a few decent action sequences here or there, but the finale is oddly limp. Despite all this, the show manages to be just reasonably entertaining enough that it's not the worst thing to put on if you have some time to kill and want to try out something new with a sci-fi bent. Perhaps you're waiting between "Walking Dead" seasons or you've finished up the already slim sci-fi offerings elsewhere.

On a personal note, one of the more aggravating aspects of the show is it's almost complete ignorance of the geography of eastern Massachusetts. In the pilot episode, we're told that a larger group of humans will split into three smaller groups - One group is told to head north to Marblehead, while another will follow Route 3 to Revere. The only problem with this is that, if you know the area, Route 3 doesn't go to Revere... and that you have to go through Revere to get to Marblehead from Boston. Later, Tom and a few others walk from the camp in Acton to a motorcycle store we're told is just outside Somerville. Aside from the fact that there are surely places to get motorcycles closer to Acton, walking from Acton to Somerville is a prospect on the order of something like seven hours if you keep a brisk pace.

It's not a huge complaint, but as a local, I find it simultaneously humorous and annoying.

Kind of like every other aspect of this show. Perhaps it will improve in its second season. I don't know. But this first season is a barely interesting, just okay-enough mixed bag of a diversion.