The two-hour season premiere of Falling Skies may just be one of the best arguments we’ve encountered for giving a floundering show with a good concept some time to find its footing. The show’s creators have managed to pull off something incredibly rare in television: they turned a show completely around without retooling it from top to bottom.
We only blogged the first several episodes of season 1 before giving up on the show. We’d been burned by previous attempts at recapturing Lost in a bottle, such as V, The Event, and Persons Unknown, and we weren’t prepared to invest a lot of time in a similarly poorly thought-out television version of a science fiction story. “We can’t waste our time on a show that really doesn’t know what the hell it’s doing,” we said; adding, “The setup of the show is not being followed up on and no character in the story so far acts like any recognizable human being. It’s all plot hammering, all the time; and if that’s where you are only 4 hours into the series, there’s no reason for us to be optimistic about the show’s future.” And, just to prove how good we are at making these kinds of decisions, we ended our review by saying, “We’ll check out Torchwood when it comes back later this week and maybe we’ll pick that one up for our nerdy summer pleasure.”
HAHAHAHAHA! Oh, my sides! Next to Torchwood, Falling Skies was practically Shakespeare.
But we had good reason to not stick with the show after the first several episodes. It really was as lackluster and nonsensical as we made it sound. After we stopped blogging about it, there was a slight uptick in quality but never enough to get us back to it. The season finale ended on a fairly tense note, so we were willing to come back for a second look when Season 2 rolled around. Well color us blown away. It’s still the same show, with the same premise and 98% of the same cast, and yet somehow, the tone is completely different. This is, finally, the show that V should have been. That’s a nice thing to say about the show, but we’ll take it one step further: Falling Skies Season 2 is the show The Walking Dead should have been. It’s THAT much better than it used to be; better even than AMC’s critically lauded zombiefest.
We always have one requirement of post-apocalyptic scenarios: verisimilitude. That doesn’t necessarily mean we want to see all the nastiness that comes when a post-industrial society is violently returned to a pre-industrial state. It means we want to see people react to events in a manner that makes them recognizably human. That was one of the things Lost did so well and why it’s held up as the standard to which all other sci-fi/adventure shows are compared; because it was easy to understand the characters and their motivations. To us, there’s no point in writing a speculative fiction story unless you’re willing to spend serious amounts of time examining the motivations of the characters. The very best science fiction has the human element locked down, even when it’s not dealing with humans, necessarily.
We look at the characters on Falling Skies and we see people who have been deeply affected, if not irrevocably damaged by the events they’ve witnessed and the actions they’ve had to take. In short: people look like shit. Stressed out, dirty, and not playing to the camera or trying to catch the light just so. Sure, it’s an uncommonly attractive cast, but no one ever gets a glamour shot; not even the uber-heroic, “walking in slow motion with a shotgun on his shoulder” Walking Dead-style ones. In Falling Skies, heroism isn’t square-jawed and looking off to the horizon; it’s tense and scared, sweaty and bloody, in a war fought and won by inches. When Tom and Anne get a reunion after a long separation and a private declaration of their love for each other, the scene isn’t played for huge emotion. The strings do not swell; there are no meaningful looks passed back and forth. People are in an incredibly dangerous situation and don’t have time for movie-style romances. We love that.
Even better, there are two major characters who are teenage boys, and, unlike every single other sci-fi show with teen male characters (V and Terra Nova come to mind), these two characters are interesting and not really all that annoying, even though they’re as reckless and angsty as any of their sci-fi counterparts. Noah Wyle is our very favorite kind of hero (the rarest kind there is): the smart kind. Sure, he can handle a gun and he’s heroic and self-sacrificing, but the story makes it clear over and over that what makes Tom dangerous to the aliens and essential to the 2nd Mass is the fact that he’s smart. Moon Bloodgood, who we’re pretty sure will never be topped in the ridiculously fabulous name department, offers a female hero who isn’t defined by her looks or relegated to being a damsel in distress or nurturer, even though she’s gorgeous and is a doctor. She’s got a spine to her and lacks any of the sort of limp girliness that infects female characters in post-apoc scenarios (Lori Grimes from the Walking Dead, we’re totally looking at you right now). She’s fierce and competent, smart and soulful. She’s our favorite sci-fi heroine in some time and she embodies the acting style on display here: underplayed. Almost everything is underplayed now (unlike last season) and it’s to the show’s enormous benefit. It’s more tense and interesting to have your characters weighing their options and taking action without a lot of histrionics. In fact, histrionics would be considered a luxury in this world. The low-key acting increases the tension and the investment in the characters because no one likes a braying jackass in the middle of a firefight.
Which brings us to Pseudo-Sawyer, the long-haired biker dude who says “Man” a lot and causes trouble. He’s weak, writers. Kill him. He strikes us one of the holdovers from the season 1 way of thinking; he’s loud and obnoxious; dressed in a cable TV show’s version of what a biker would look like (David Lee Roth circa 1986, apparently) and every time he appears we wonder why the group allows him to stay. Writers, trust us when we say, the show would be better if you cut Psawyer loose.
But that’s really a minor complaint. As always, we make no predictions about the quality of the show going forward, but once they put the machine gun in the hands of an 8-year-old, we happily realized that the show had shed the last of its Spielbergian schmaltz and decided to go for broke. It’s so on.
[Photo Credit: Michael Muller/TNT]