Monday, June 20, 2011

Falling Skies

The most important thing to know about Falling Skies -- TNT's new post-apocalyptic alien-invasion survivalist romp -- is that the series premiere got its worst scene out of the way early. Skies kicked off last night with a montage of crayon drawings presenting the viewer with the end of the world. A chorus of adorable-sounding children narrated us through the arrival of a strange alien race, the annihilation of some 90% of the global population, and the current state of the human resistance. It could've been poetic, but it played like a PowerPoint presentation assembled by overeager preschoolers. It was a bit of unnecessary exposition, completely out-of-place in an otherwise fleetfooted premiere.
Here's the second most important thing to note about Falling Skies: It doesn't want to be the next Lost. Or, if it does, it's at least not falling into the same traps as wannabe cult-sensations like The Event, V, or FlashForward. Those shows kicked off with impossibly high stakes and densely interwoven mythologies that grew steadily more impenetrable with every passing episode. The characters on Falling Skies aren't trying to solve any grand mysteries, at least not yet. They're just trying to survive.
Early in the premiere, we saw a meeting of the brain trust of the Second Massachusetts (the local branch of the Resistance, named after a historical regiment from the Continental Army.) The commanding officer explained that it was time to move: "We've picked this area clean of weapons and food." ("Weapons" and "food" already seem to be a recurring motif in Skies: The first hour of the premiere focused on a mission to get more food, while the second hour centered on a dispute over weaponry.) So, the 2nd Mass would be going to ground, dispersing into units of 300 -- 100 fighters and 200 civilians. The plan was brutally simple: "We're gonna run. We're gonna hide. And we're gonna survive." That this line of dialogue was spoken byDale Dye, a soldier-turned-technical advisor and sometimes actor who was in Vietnam for the Tet Offensive, gave it extra bite.
The Skies premiere got in a bit of ambient mythmaking -- we learned that the invading force is comprised of six-legged lizard-insect beings nicknamed "Skitters" and tall robots nicknamed "Mechs." Neither of these beings look particularly interesting -- the Skitters in particular prove Kyle Buchanan's assertion that Hollywood really needs to move on from the "anorexic oversized insect" mode of creature design -- but I was ghoulishly fascinated by the fact that part of the aliens' master plan involves controlling human children by way of a "harness," which resembles nothing so much as a runaway spinal cord. Whenever the Resistance has attempted to remove a harness, the child winds up dead -- and the show didn't shy away from showing us an example.
The most interesting bit of serial-mystery came in the night's second hour, when the Kindly Ol' Schoolteacher brought up an interesting thought experiment: If the Skitters have six limbs, why are the Mechs bipedal? It was suggested that the Skitters might have been studying the earth for a long time, and that they created humanoid robots to create "a bigger psychological impact."
My Ridiculously Early Theory about the Invaders: The Mechs are actually the controlling faction of the alien invasion force. They're a race of artificial intelligence that rebelled against their masters and now go through the universe enslaving every race they find.
My Even-More-Ridiculously Early Wager for a Season-Ending Twist: The Skitters aren't allied with the Mechs; they're slaves, and they've been harnessed just like the human children.
But the majority of the first hour was spent establishing our main characters. Noah Wyle plays Tom Mason, a former history professor who's been named second-in-command of the unit. Mason's superior, Weaver, is a hard-nosed military lifer -- we heard mention of his past service in Desert Storm -- who seems to view the citizens under his protection as a nuisance. The de facto civilian leader is Dr. Anne Glass, a pediatrician played by Moon Bloodgood in a surprisingly maternal performance. (Bloodgood, you'll remember, played a kickass action chick in another post-apocalyptic human resistance in Terminator: Salvation.) Mason has three sons: One of them is an adorable little plot contrivance who might as well be wearing a T-shirt that reads, "I represent hope, and also miss my mommy." The oldest son is an army scout with the general aspect of a boy who learned manliness from watching Grease. Mason's third son who was captured and harnessed.
But let's focus on Mason for a second. One of the best moments in the Skies premiere was practically a throwaway scene: Mason, preparing to set off with the 2nd Massachusetts for Acton, notices a collection of books. He picks up one: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. He picks up another: A Tale of Two Cities. He can only take one. 20,000 Leagues Under the Seaseems appropriate: The story of Captain Nemo, who lurks in the shadows plotting attacks, could seem inspiring (particularly given the fantastical nature of the humans' enemies.) But Mason grabs A Tale of Two Cities instead -- a book about, among other things, the French Revolution.
I have to admit, I've never been a big fan of Wyle's TNT series of tele-films The Librarian, but I really enjoyed him in the premiere. Mason is the kind of guy who speaks entirely in historical analogy: When his men are discussing running trucks full of C4 into the alien mega-skyscraping fortress, Tom responds, "The outside of that thing is gonna be like a fortress. Gotta get inside. Trojan horse. Or the Romans at Pontus." Later, when it comes time to give an inspiring speech, Tom doesn't offer fire and brimstone. Instead, he offers a simple plan of attack that maps out exactly how resistance movements succeed: "History is full of inferior forces creating so much trouble that the invading army leaves. The Athenians at Marathon, the Scots against the English, our Revolution fought right here." Then, like a good professor, he gives us the punchline: "Red Sox/Yankees, '04."
I'm a history buff, so this is all pure candy for me. And Skies was co-created by history buffs: Robert Rodat and Steven Spielberg, the screenwriter and director of Saving Private Ryan. Rodat also wrote The Patriot. Both Private Ryan and The Patriot focused on a tiny group of soldiers making their way through invaded territory, and the best moments of the Skiespremiere resembled those films' testosterone-soaked image of American history. Rodat seems fascinated by military maneuvers, and there was a wonderfully casual flair to how Skies' premiere incorporated army lingo: My favorite was the quick line of dialogue, in which Tom reminded his son Hal that there's a difference between a "clip" and a "mag." Mind you, I still don't entirely know what that difference is. I'm not a gun guy. But I have a friend who is a gun-nut, and I'm sure he'd appreciate Skies' verisimilitude.
The first hour of Skies was pretty straightforward: Tom led a group of Resistance fighters on a food-run. In the process, his son Hal caught sight of middle brother Ben, walking with a group of harnessed kids in the same direction as the 2ndMassachusetts. Hal wanted to go after him; Tom convinced him otherwise; the little band went into a warehouse, got the food, blew up a Mech, and shot a skitter.  The scene of the Resistance fighters staring down at the dying sitter seemed to directly reference the penultimate scene ofFull Metal Jacket. And there was a terse, bleakly funny rhythm to the dialogue that ended the scene:
Jimmy: "I wonder what it's thinking."
Tom: (as the skitter's head rolls to the side, dead) "Nothing, now."
I haven't mentioned my biggest concern aboutSkies: The hokey, family-friendly TNT-ness that occasionally seeps in. The first hour ended with a mini-celebration of youngest son's Matt birthday which basically amounted to a four-minute meditation on the redemptive power of the Rip-Stik. Matt rode his little board around, the camera cut to the entire cast grinning, and all that was missing was a shot of Weaver giving Li'l Matt a thumbs up. Sentimentality isn't a bad thing, but it felt tonally out of place in the context of the rest of the first hour.
But that was all just prelude to the premiere's second half -- an episode indicates that Skies is going to be much smarter than any of us expected. Our rebel band had set up shop in Acton: The soldiers were living in empty houses, while the civilians were set up in tents. Dr. Glass begged Weaver to consider letting the civilians sleep under ceilings -- "We're not just eaters," she said. Weaver shot her down: "A few years from now, when the Skitters have been wiped out, or sent back to the undoubtedly hideous planet that they call home, the concerns of the citizens will be addressed."
That was a good line. The second half of Skies' premiere was written by Graham Yost, a TV demi-god best known as the showrunner for Justified, although he also wrote for Band of Brothers and The Pacific(and created one of my favorite shows ever: Boomtown.) Not coincidentally, Yost's hour introduced a character who seems straight out of Justified: John Pope, a self-described "leader of a post-apocalyptic gang of outlaws," played with a beer-chugging cowboy gusto by Colin Cunningham. Pope's band of outlaws killed one of Mason's men and captured the rest of them -- Mason had been sent in by Weaver to investigate the local armory.
Pope took Mason and his men to the theater at the local schoolhouse -- his big scene started with him on a throne, and only got more operatic from there. Upon hearing that the rebels came from the 2nd Massachusetts, he noted, "How Revolutionary War." Pope initially came off as a backwoods racist -- he referred to the African American guy as a "Gang-banger" and the Asian-American guy as "an Oriental of some sort," which is dialogue that might have had more sting if the show had done anything to set up those characters besides their ethnicity. But Pope quickly revealed himself as a man with a surprisingly grandiose intellect. After Tom said that he taught history, Pope excitedly asked him, "What kind of history? Sumerians on upwards?" When Tom compared the 2nd Massachusetts to the colonialists who fought the British, Pope responded with a thought experiment: "What if we're the Indians, and they're the neverending tide of humanity coming in from Europe?"
It's fair to say that Pope immediately stole the show right out from under everyone. He noted in great detail the proper method of disposing Skitters: "You take out a couple of legs. You slow them down. It weakens them. Then you take the head shot." (Fun fact: this is actually the recommended method for killing aliens inDead Space.) Best of all, while everyone else in the cast of Falling Skies is understandably playing their roles with an air of melancholy, Cunningham really bit into the role of a man who loves, absolutely loves how completely the world has fallen apart. The invasion is, in Pope's words, "The best damn thing that has ever happened to me."
I figured the hour was setting up Pope and his men as a third force on the show, besides just the Resistance and the Aliens. Pope was holding Mason's men captive, with the hope to get the 2ndMassachusetts' heavy artillery: He wanted "the 50," which is apparently military terminology for "An awesome machine gun that sits on the back of an awesome truck." At one point, Pope faced down Weaver, and although Weaver backed down, he promised: "I will get ya." I figured that was setting up a conflict that would run for a few episodes. Maybe even the season!
Instead, it ran for about five minutes. Tom and his compatriots escaped, with the help of Maggie, a member of Pope's gang who decided to join the Resistance. (In a great, shocking scene, she shot two members of Pope's gang, and explained that they had forced themselves upon her: "Cueball thought he was better because he brought chocolate. He wasn't.") A fly-by by a passing skitter ship -- what Pope indelibly christened "a cootie-bird" -- instantly vaporized Pope's band of criminals, and left him captured. "I guess you got me," he said to Weaver. (Is it a callback if the event you're calling back to just happened a minute ago?)
Still, I'm happy that Pope is staying in mix -- it seems like he'll be a great amoral force on the show. There are parts of the Falling Skies premiere that seemed weirdly archaic -- oh look, another attractive blonde lady soldier! -- but I found myself pretty excited about this season as the premiere ended, with Tom and his crew setting off in search of Ben and the harnessed children. There was a lot more to the premiere -- I haven't even mentioned the soap-worthy love triangle between Hal, fellow scout Karen, and nurse/devout Catholic Lourdes, or the guaranteed-to-disturb presence of 13-year-old child soldier Jimmy -- but I’ll leave that for future recaps.
For now, I'm interested to hear what you thought of the premiere, fellow viewers! Do you like Noah Wyle as the show's protagonist? Is the whole Skitters/Mech dichotomy interesting to you? Seriously, did Colin Cunningham just completely walk away with that second hour or what? And, most important of all, will you keep watching next week?

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