There’s nothing terribly wrong with “Falling Skies,” the Steven Spielberg sci-fi drama that had its two-hour premier on TNT last night. It’s a stew of post-apocalyptic conventions we’ve seen numerous times before, and even within the first two hours, it falls into a predictable formula. But it’s entertaining, even if it is at times heavy-handed. In addition to the obvious influence of Spielberg (who smears his sentiment all over the family moments), “Falling Skies” is also exec produced by a couple of guys behind “Heroes” and “Battlestar Galactica,” and it’s in the latter where a watered-down influence can be felt the most.
“ER” doctor Noah Wyle stars as Tom Mason, a history professor turned leader of the human resistance. The underlying character premise here is that his knowledge of history will help the the survivors deal with an alien invasion. History repeats itself, but it’s hard to know which history lesson is applicable: Is this the American Revolution, where the American fought off the British, or are humans the Native Americans being invaded, killed, and colonized? Mason’s background in history is mentioned no less than seven times in the first two hours, and it’s obvious that Spielberg — who was also behind “The Pacific” and “Band of Brothers” — is attempting to force some overwrought educational value in between the alien attacks (not coincidentally, the creator, Robert Rodat, also wrote Saving Private Ryan and The Patriot).
The action picks up in the near future, six months after the alien invasion. Most of the world’s population has been decimated, and all that’s left are a couple of factions of survivors who are intent on using guerrilla warfare to combat their technologically superior invaders. Those invaders are the Mechs — huge robot-looking monsters — and the Skitters, their robot-y spidery-looking underlings. Why they are invading Earth, we don’t know. It’s TNT and not Damon Lindeloff or “The Killing,” so we expect that answers will be meted out soon, and so far, it’s engaging enough to want to find out.
Of the survivors who make up the Massachusetts 2nd (because they are based around Boston), Mason also has three sons: An older teenager, Hal (Drew Mason), hot-blooded, surly, and in love with Karen (Jessy Schram); Ben, one of the many teenagers who have been “harnessed” by the aliens and turned into zombie-like slaves; and Matt (Maxim Night), a younger kid who doesn’t quite understand why everything in his life has gone pear shaped. Will Patton does his best hoo-ra hardened military leader, who is already butting heads with Tom over tactical vs emotional needs. Moon Bloodgood, meanwhile, plays the pediatrician who cares for the wounded and so far, she hasn’t displayed much in the way of a character range, but she’s pretty decent at giving Tom knowing glances to set up a future romantic relationship (Tom’s wife died in the initial invasion).
The first half of the pilot provides an overview of what’s going on. Essentially, the survivors have conceded that they’re unable to defeat the aliens in head-to-head combat, so they’re retreating while also studying the aliens and their weaknesses — clearly, they die, but how is not so certain. Clues to that are learned in the second half, when John Pope (Collin Cunningham) — the leader of a criminal faction of marauders — captures Tom and a few of the Mass 2nd attempting to find and rescue Ben. Tom turns it around on Pope, but not before picking up a few lessons in alien killin’. Cunningham, so far, provides the show its biggest spark, some much-needed, ethically challenged dark humor. He plays well against Noah Wyle, who is much better than you’d expect in the role, all scruff, gravelly voice, and fatherly affection.
Comparisons to “The Walking Dead” and “Battlestar Galactica” are both inevitable and apt. “Falling Skies” doesn’t rise to the level of those shows. It’s neither as grim as the former, or metaphor-rich as the latter, but it doesn’t strive to outdo them. It’s comfortable with its tone — it’s doomsday by way of a TBS Saturday afternoon movie. It’s kind of old-fashioned, too: Simple humans vs. aliens, and so far at least, there’s no threat of game-changing twists or incredible plot turns. That’s too its credit; it’s been awhile since television gave us a straightforward sci-fi drama, and while there’s nothing in “Falling Skies” yet to keep us glued to our TV sets, it’s nevertheless a refreshing change of pace. It’s decent but flawed summer fare.