Falling Skies: “Live and Learn”

The Second Massachusetts

Falling Skies

TNT, Sundays, 9 PM

“Live and Learn”

Written by Robert Rodat

Directed by Carl Franklin

“The Armory”

Written by Graham Yost

Directed by Greg Beeman

“Being the leader of a post-apocalyptic gang of outlaws has been exhausting.” — Pope

One of the biggest mistakes amateur storytellers make is to start the story too early; there are endless chapters of introductory material, character building, exposition. Stephen Spielberg was born into the master class of storytelling, and it shows in the introduction of Falling Skies; we don’t just get into the story late, we get into it after the first act has already played out. Ten seconds of exposition illustrated with the drawings of a child tell us all we need to know: evil aliens, big ships, most of humanity wiped out or on the run. By the time the action starts, we already feel late to the party, adding yet another layer of tension to our experience as we struggle to catch up, and figure out who these grubby guys with guns are. This story, in particular, hits all my favorite buttons: post-apocalyptic storyline, strong but humble hero, a villain I loved from the moment he walked onscreen. And, of course, aliens. Unlike V, to which this show will inevitably be compared, we don’t get  frustrating teases about the aliens. We see them up close and personal, both the six-legged organic Skitters and the two-legged mechanical Mechs. so far, this is a straight-up video game scenario, but writers Graham Yost (Justified) and creator/writer Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan) add a touch of creepy pathos when we learn that the aliens have spared children, only to slap a spinal “harness” onto them that makes them into slaves/zombies.

“Dial back on the history lessons, Dad.” — Hal Mason

Our leading hero is Tom Mason (Noah Wylie, the Librarian movies, ER), a former tenured history professor now widowed by the aliens, whose middle son of three has been harnessed. Tom now serves in the ad hoc “Second Massachusetts” army, headed by a grizzled war vet named Weaver, played by the always excellent Will Patton (24). Wylie’s scruffy Tom is not such a long way from Dr. John Carter, or even Flynn Carsen; underneath the beard and the dirt, you know he’s a good guy. Wylie has the same down-home charisma of a Tom Hanks, actors whose innate charm could let them play villains if they had to, but would inexorably have us rooting for them. Here, he plays a professor who just can’t keep from throwing in a history lesson on the Second Punic war or the Middle Ages. The fact that his son Hal (Drew Roy, Hannah Montana) dismisses this as dusty pedantry only shows how arrogant youth can be: Tom knows that those who do not learn from history are doomed to re-live it. And against the obvious conclusion that the humans are outgunned, outnumbered and extinct, he reminds his troops of the many times in history “inferior forces” have made so much trouble for superior invaders that the invaders left. Vietcong soldiers firing arrows at Hueys, Taliban insurgents hiding homemade bombs along roads traveled by the military, or the Apache nation holding off the world’s most formidable cavalry come to mind. Tom reminds his “kids” that the American revolution was fought right there, in Boston, against an overwhelmingly superior army. So already we see that Tom is an optimist striding through this dystopia, and already I like him a lot. Wylie delivers all of this without speechifying, downplaying the professorial aspects. We do get a glimpse of the professor under the guerrilla fighter, however, when he rescues a book from a pile of discards, tucking it away in a gesture to the future no one else believes in.

“I just want it all to go back to the way it was before.” — Matt Mason

The most prominent female in the cast so far is Anne Glass (Moon Bloodgood, Terminator Salvation), a pediatrician pressed into service as the group’s sole physician. She has an eye for Tom, who has an eye right back, but we can tell they are both too involved with survival right now to take it any further. Anne takes on a sort of substitute mother role for Tom’s youngest son, Matt (Maxim Knight, Special Agent Oso), who still mourns the loss of his mom, his way of life, and the tradition of birthday parties and wishes. Matt is the touchstone of normalcy for the pilot; he longs for his old life back, he worries that he won’t get a cake or presents in his upcoming birthday. This could be played as a whiny brat, but instead it comes across as the masks worn by a young boy trying to deal with the unthinkable, struggling to come to terms with events that have broken legions of grown men. It’s a typical Spielberg moment to make a child this young not only the focus but the carrier of the emotive weight of the story. Anne, Tom and Drew all reserve their softest tones, their most gentle moments, for this traumatized youngster, and those moments add real humanity to what otherwise might come across as the grimmest of dystopias. It is absolutely a Spielberg moment to make Matt’s moment on a skateboard the emotional linchpin of the episode.

“We’ve been on a bug hunt the last six months, and it has been a blast.” — John Pope

The two-hour premiere breaks into two halves, with the first part focusing on the battle against the invaders and the second part focusing on the battle against other humans. The recent lessons of Japan notwithstanding, it is a fixed belief in apocalyptic storytellers that man will turn against man if given half a catastrophe. Americans raised in the stories (not the reality, but the stories) of the Old West in particular are prone to the idea that you can’t have a white hat without a black hat in the wings. If we have Tom the hero, we must have an anti-hero as his distorted reflection. He arrives in the second episode, “The Armory”, when Tom and his squad are sent to investigate an armory in the hope of finding weapons. They are ambushed not by aliens but by outlaws, complete with the de rigeur black leather and shaggy hair. They demand that Weaver turn over his most powerful weapon in exchange for the hostages; while waiting for Drew to bring it back, Tom has a long conversation with the sardonic and exceptionally well-read outlaw leader, John Pope (Collin Cunningham, Flashpoint). Pope instantly seizes and holds the stage, ranting, strutting, with barbed wit and obvious intelligence to match Tom’s. When Tom suggests he join up with the Second Massachusetts, he rejects the idea, but is momentarily intrigued at Tom’s guarantee of good conversation if he does. Defiant but clever, he is the perfect foil for Tom; I was glad when he wound up as Tom’s prisoner. I suspect he will become a beloved, untrustworthy gadfly, akin to Dr. Smith of Lost in Space. Cunningham brings a dark appeal to the role, a strong onscreen presence that can stand up against the likes of a Will Patton or a Noah Wylie, as well as some much needed humor. Also, he gets all the best lines.

“They die, just like  us.” — Tom

If you’re looking for a lot of originality in this show, don’t bother. Like most works Spielberg touches, it recycles familiar tropes in interesting but unsurprising ways. We have the lovable kid (E. T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind), the evil yet possibly misunderstood aliens (Super 8), the giant robots (Transformers), the plucky band of fighters (War of the Worlds). The publicity for this show promises shocking twists down the road, but I’m pretty sure I figured one out as soon as a biologist wondered why the six-legged Skitters make two-legged, not six-legged, robots. The potential answer to that is chilling, but hardly original. Most of the series will probably be rather cut-and-paste; like Walking Dead, it will have more to do with the interactions of the human refugees than the actual aliens themselves. Like Jericho, expect to have much of the action hang on survival and endurance, with less focus on How It All Came About.  I love innovative television, love science fiction and fantasy that pushes the envelope. All too often, however, such forward-thinking writing dooms a show to low (Fringe) or no (Pushing Daisies) ratings, and the shows die before their time. Falling Skies arrived with monster numbers, however: a whopping 5.9 million people tuned in for the premiere on Sunday. Those are good numbers for broadcast TV, let alone a cable channel. But then, TNT has a history of making good television, so I’m not surprised. If Falling Skies takes no chances, it at least delivers a solid value for your time. I’ll be back next week.