By Tim Goodman
LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) – TNT’s entertaining new series “Falling Skies” premieres next Sunday with quite a bit less fanfare than executive producer Steven Spielberg’s other sci-fi TV project, the problematic Fox series “Terra Nova.”
The pressure is squarely on “Terra Nova” not to become a high-priced flop (cough, “FlashForward,” cough) when the much-delayed series finally debuts in the fall. Hey, stranger things have happened.
And when it comes right down to it, do you want your sci-fi to involve going back in time with dinosaurs or confronting a post-apocalyptic world where aliens have bombed the bejesus out of Earth?
Exactly. Let “Terra Nova” dabble in Jurassic danger while “Falling Skies” puts machine guns in the hands of kids. Or they could both be really good.
If you’re wondering about kids with machine guns, yes, it has come to that in the world of “Falling Skies.” The premise is that alien ships arrived — present day — and brought a whole lot of whoop-ass with them. Much of the world has been destroyed, military targets taken out, the population decimated and the aliens are an occupying force. It’s left up to ordinary citizens to fight back — kids included — even though they are vastly outnumbered, under-armed and technologically lacking.
“Falling Skies” picks up six months after the carnage and part of the citizen army known as 2nd Mass (because they are in Boston) is looking for food and weapons, trying to avoid the deadly mechanized robots (known as “Mechs”) doing the killing for the multiple-legged aliens (known as “Skitters”) who launched the attack. (The aliens are hard to describe, but if you’ve seen “Monsters, Inc.,” think about Mr. Waternoose sans color or the ability to sound like James Coburn).
The series wastes little time in setting the grim scenario: Everybody’s on their own. The resistance fighters are doing the best they can, but it’s a rag-tag collection at best, vastly overwhelmed to the point where anybody who can handle a gun gets one (if there’s one to be spared). The aliens have also kidnapped teenagers and attached a tentacled bug to their spines, which essentially turns them into zombie-like slaves.
Conceived by Spielberg and Robert Rodat (who wrote “Saving Private Ryan”), the series stars “ER” veteran Noah Wyle as Tom Mason, a Boston history professor with a specialty in military tactics. He’s assigned to Weaver (Will Patton), the commander of 2nd Mass.
Moon Bloodgood is Anne Glass, a pediatrician who lost her own family but is taking care of the children in the group. Mason has three sons — eldest teenager Hal (Drew Roy) who has become impressively battle-hardened; middle child Ben (Connor Jessup), kidnapped and “harnessed” by the aliens; and 8-year-old Matt (Maxim Knight), who has not only lost his mother, who died in the invasion, plus a brother under alien control, but he doesn’t have the ability to fully understand why his life isn’t normal.
And that’s ultimately what works best in “Falling Skies.” Smartly set just far enough after the attack to have the shock worn down, but not far enough for anyone to have fully recovered, emotionally, we meet these characters at an unfamiliar juncture for most sci-fi fare. Spielberg and company don’t have to recreate “War of the Worlds” for us to know what happened. “Falling Skies” shares a number of welcome similarities to the re-imagined “Battlestar Galactica,” in that both series have a tone that each character understands and both series accomplish a lot for what is likely a fraction of what “Terra Nova” is spending. This more granular approach to the apocalypse favors sharp writing and nuance. Credit Wyle with establishing exactly the right tone here — his character has lost his wife, a son is kidnapped by the aliens and instead of running around frantically, his downbeat acceptance essentially conveys, “Hey, it’s done. It happened. We didn’t dream it. This is life as we know it now.”
Of course, in that way there are also welcome comparisons to “The Walking Dead” as well. “Falling Skies” is first and foremost a survival story. The series does well by not sugarcoating reality for the children in the story. Mason’s youngest may want to celebrate a birthday and get a present, but the abiding mood is that such whimsy belongs in a past life. There’s a bigger question out there — what are the aliens up to? — plus numerous unanswered smaller questions about whether there’s a government in place, how many people are still alive, etc.
But the entertainment value and suspense of Falling Skies is paced just right. You get the sense that we’ll get those answers eventually. And yet, you want to devour the next episode immediately. You know, like a raptorsaurus.