EPISODE REVIEW: Falling Skies: "Live and Learn" (Episode 1)

Flabbergasted

Okay, let’s get the elephant in this room out of the way up front. Steven Spielberg is involved here (executive producer), so it’s not going to suck eggs. It’s going to meet minimum professional standards for television and not embarrass itself trying to go the bathroom. So there’s that.

Falling Skies is competent. You recognize familiar ideas and bits, the basics of storytelling execution, and even stereotypical characters are professionally rendered. It’s all watchable. That sounds like a complaint when it really isn’t, but the net effect does strip away that sense of wonder more memorable television and movies have. And while it has elements that may yet surprise us, it doesn’t feel particularly original.

The opening gambit is sound. Rather than rehash the whole aliens arrive, people wonder about their intentions, etc., we just jump right in. Aliens arrived, they were jerks, and life as we know it is over. That does make the exposition and world building feel rushed several times, but on balance it’ll work if they can steady the keel in future episodes. Our point of view is the 2nd Massachusetts freedom fighters in Boston. They’re totally pissed that the Patriots were finally about to win the Super Bowl again when the aliens arrived and vaporized Tom Brady. No, seriously, they’re the generic post-Apocalyptic resistance force we’re all familiar with. It’s a trope, but a necessary and workable one.

The main POV character is Tom Mason (played by the guy from ER). He’s a history professor whose wife was killed in the onslaught. He has three kids, but one was kidnapped by the aliens. They apparently have a propensity for taking children and turning them into slaves by attaching a biomechanical harness to their spines. Ick. So Tom has a decent assortment of angst and motivations. By the end of the pilot, he also knows where his enslaved son Ben is located.

Other characters include the always underrated Will Patton as Captain Weaver, Tom’s gruff commander. Naturally, they clash. On that subject, the attempt to use Tom’s history background is admirable, but the constant reversion to lectures about the American Revolution becomes inadvertently comedic at times. (“Could we maybe get comments on this plan from someone who wasn’t a history professor? Anyone? Don’t be shy.”) There’s also the attractive Dr. Glass, played by someone called Moon Bloodgood. Fortunately for Tom, her husband was killed in the onslaught, so you can start filling in the blanks on that one.

As post-apocalyptic landscapes go, this is better than most, certainly by television standards. The aliens themselves are a mixed bag. You have the Mechs, big robots stomping around killing anyone they see. They’re kind of cool. Then there are the Skitters. It’s hard to describe them. They have six legs and two arms, or eight legs depending on how you look at it. Big fangs/tusks, too. Think mean-ET-walrus-spider-crabs. If you’re having trouble imaging that, you’re probably not alone. I did not find them entirely successful from a visual stand point, but that could be because the big warehouse confrontation with one near the end has a perfunctory feel to it. It’s dark, and we mostly just watch the Skitter do an extended death rattle. No flowers from the surrounding crowd. The Skitters could grow on me, I suppose.

The two-hour pilot, which feels like two one-hour episodes cobbled together, places a premium on its human side. That’s not unexpected, and there seems to be a calculated bet that we’ll be intrigued enough to hang around by the promise of an alien mystery. I’m not sure that’s a totally sound bet, but Spielberg’s name probably does buy them several episodes at least before any dissatisfaction mounts. I’m kind of torn after watching the pilot. This could still wind up a better series than it seems, or a slightly worse one.

So on to the first non-pilot episode, entitled “Prisoner of War.” It opens with Tom and a small group out to rescue his son Ben. They’ve located him gathering scrap with other zombie slave kids. The attempt goes south when someone knocks a brick off a roof and Mechs start shooting at them. Then to commercial (there are an exasperatingly large number of commercials on TNT).

Back from commercials, we’re at the 2nd Massachusetts HQ. It’s an old high school, and so help me God they have a briefing where everyone files in to sit in rows. Me memory evens insists the briefer said “Take a seat.” And here we see the weakest part of Falling Skies, a tendency to lapse into lazy riffs. The whole briefing is generalized cliché after cliché: “we’re not alone… need hard intelligence… scavenge weapons… we need to win this war…” Hollow tense talk because that’s what resistance fighters are supposed to do. It gets better later, but that’s one tendency they really need to watch.

Some doctor thinks he’s figured out how to get the harnesses off the kids without killing them. So Tom is told they need one kid, and it should be his son, Ben. That’s a ????? moment. Why just one? You’re basically running experiments on how to cure them. If you’re going to take fire busting into a slave camp to get one, shouldn’t you take as many as you can? I mean, it’s not like the bank where you just show up with your ATM card when you need more. The whole “one” thing sets up a neat moment later, but it’s pretty forced.

So they go to get Ben. Another father sees his kid and instinctively rushes to get him instead. He succeeds, but the whole thing goes south, with two fighters trapped behind and knocked unconscious by Mech. Tom finds himself in an underground fight with a Skitter. Visually, the Skitter is still herky jerky all over the place in dim lighting. Tom shoots off two of its legs and beats it senseless. Note to Tom: As a resistance fighter out in an alien battle zone, it would be wise not to shout “Who’s there” when you hear something odd. So in sum:

Two resistance fighters are captured,
One father gets away with his kid, and
Tom drags his Skitter prisoner of war all the way back to high school, where the varmint is sent to detention.

One of the captured resistance fighters awakens. A Mech escorts out five enslaved kids, apparently from the work pod of the one they rescued. A Skitter orders it to execute them while the horrified resistance fighter watches. He is let go to take the message back to the others. It’s a solid moment, even if it doesn’t excuse the whole “take one” bit earlier.

Back at high school, the doctor who thinks he can remove the harness does so, actually cutting if off in segments with a torch while drugging the kid. It’s a good scene, and the slowly unfurled harness looks appropriately icky. Seems the doctor also worked with Tom’s wife. They have a reasonably good scene together where they take turns inflicting guilt on one another: Tom on the doctor because he ran and left Tom’s wife to die when the aliens attacked; the doctor on Tom because Tom’s wife was only there to begin with because Tom was slacking off at home. It’s hardly Shakespeare, but more of this and less of that tired briefing scene they opened with could tilt the scales positive on this show.

The ending has a little jolt. The captured Skitter opens its eyes wide, glowing sort of cat like. Simultaneously, the eyes of the kid who had his harness removed snap open. That’s movement in the right direction, and it’s the first visual involving a Skitter that actually made me sit up and take notice.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS EPISODE?

Patriotic resistance fighters in Boston with blatant Founding Father memorabilia? Sure, why not? I suspect, thought, one’s real reaction depends on how tolerant of the lazier bits one is.

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