Falling Skies may have started airing weeks ago, but it’s hard to get excited about reviewing a show which, sadly, isn’t very good.
Note to Studios: Study What Came Before and Learn from Them
Back when Jericho‘s first trailers appeared I got really excited. It was the first speculative show I’d seen on a major network since Star Trek. That’s probably inaccurate, so I’ll qualify that I remember it being the first speculative show on a major network that I noticed. And it heralded a flood of SF: there was the water alien show–and maybe another invasion show, Lost, Flash Forward, the Event, and Heroes (now that I think about it, Lost may have been the first). None of which, with the exception of Lost, lasted for very long. Some of those shows had a decent premise and lousy execution. Many suffered from too many characters with placeholder problems for character development. Jericho‘s main character was the prodigal son returned. Lost had a barnload of stereotypes: drug addiction, prison record, more father issues. I’m actually going to go out on a limb and alienate some people by stating up front that I am not a fan of Lost. They did some things well (moral quandaries) but the devices were just so tired that I was never interested in watching the full episode. I’d start it, then read the wikipedia summaries.
You know what shows did great character development? Buffy the Vampire Slayer–though even they started to repeat themselves by the end. Battlestar Galactica: More father issues, but the “issue” was more or less resolved by the end of the pilot/miniseries and what remained was personality clash and history. Firefly: sadly we didn’t really see enough of the show to see them develop much past their introductions, but there was a well of deep emotion in all of them. Anyone who wants to know how to truly tease out an issue needs to watch War Stories in which two men being tortured to death can’t stop arguing about a woman. It’s all about the juxtaposition, the rising tension.
So if you’re going to blatantly copy a show, make it a good one. Jericho I feel failed because it focused on all the obvious problems (radiation, getting food, ‘discovering’ the extent of the problem) but without any energy. They rested on the inertia of ‘NUCLEAR BOMB!’ much like Falling Skies is resting on ‘GEEZ LOOK! ALIENS’ Tsk tsk. Plus, the characters suck.
Falling Skies: Oh How You Fail, Even When You Succeed
Falling Skies starts off well enough. The premise is simple: Aliens landed and without the oratory skills of Bull Pullman, Earth’s collective ass was whooped.
We learn this through the drawings and voice overs of surviving children. Aliens came, sat in our skies for a while, and we didn’t nuke them because for the first time in the history of ever, our first reaction is “Maybe they want to be friends.” The last kid to speak is the son of the main character. His father and older brother are out fighting and his mother is dead.
As an aside, why do apocalypses hate mothers so much? Super 8: dead mom; father raising son alone. Cormac’s The Road: dead mom; father walking with son alone. Falling Skies: dead mom; father raising two sons alone (third son was captured by aliens). I get that a single parent is an automatic sympathizing agent, but it’s also too easy. Kill one parent so that the other becomes a sexually viable candidate for any other opposite sex character. All the women we meet are attractive and probably single.
Now that we’ve been introduced to the orphaned, dirt smudged children, we must know that battles can happen. Noah Wyle and his son are running away–there’s some screaming about food–people die and one woman gets harnessed (aliens are making some humans into slaves using some thing that goes on their back) so we see what that’s like (looks unpleasant). There’s lots of yelling–the city has been lost, and as the intrepid fighters flee back to base we get a shot of an alien structure above the city.
Then we have an important military meeting. An older man in an army uniform is going to abandon the city. They’re going to split into groups of 100 fighters, 200 civilians each. They’ll head into the countryside and scavange–no doubt employing guerilla tactics on the aliens so they’ll give up and head back to Cuba. Sorry, wrong film.
A man named Weaver gets the second Massachusetts–Tom (oh, that’s Noah’s name) is his second. Weaver and the old army guy get into a fight. We learn that there are far fewer skitters (bug aliens) and mechs (cylons) than there were before. Weaver wants to stay and fight, old army says they can’t unless they know more about their enemy. What exactly they’re supposed to learn by hiding in the woods protecting civilians is left unsaid.
Also, and this is really important: Noah Wylie is a professor. They mention it about a dozen times in the first 20 minutes into the show. He quotes military history: Trojan Horse, WWI fighters digging underneath the enemy. They call him professor twice in 10 seconds.
I imagine the producers must have had the following conversation:
TV Exec 1: Lets cast Noah Wyle
TV Exec 2: The part calls for a military commander. Noah Wyle is as brawny as my 2 year old nephew. My dead grandmother could take him in a fight.
TV Exec 1: Make him a history professor. A MILITARY history professor.
TV Exec 2: How does that make it better?
TV Exec 1: And we’ll constantly TELL people he’s a professor so when the main military commander makes him second in command of 100 fighters, the audience knows that everyone else understands he’s supposed to look like that.
TV Exec 2: So it’s a lampshade? We’re aware there’s a problem and rather than addressing it we make people MORE aware of the problem?
TV Exec 1: Noah Wyle is hot and more women will watch the show if he is in it.
TV Exec 2: Then cast George Clooney. He at least can buff up.
TV Exec 1: We can’t afford George Clooney. We can afford a librarian.
Hal (Tom/Noah’s older, fighting son) has a conversation with a blonde who, based on her reaction to another girl bringing Hal food, must be his girlfriend. They talk about motorbikes to show that this girl, though blonde, attractive and virtually dirt free is a “hardcore freedom fighter.” She’s also the only female fighter we’ve seen thus far. Pretty much the only women we’ve met are a doctor (care giver), a girl who brings Hal food (more care giving) and this motorbike fighter chick (who, as a girlfriend, must be giving Hal something-something on the side). There are no female military commanders, no other female soldiers. This despite the fact that we have a thirteen year old child in Tom/Noah’s military group.
Anyway, feminist issues aside, they all pack up to leave the city and find shelter somewhere else. There’s a huge pile of books on the side of the road and Tom/Noah picks through them. He discards a trashy (women’s) magazine and weighs 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea against a Tale of Two Cities. Just in case the constant ‘Professor! Professor!’ wasn’t enough, now we know that he’s a man of culture.
Personally I think it would’ve been hysterical and a nice nod to geek culture if the book had been something like Pride & Prejudice and Zombies or maybe Ender’s Game. Something.
The civilians walk–in broad daylight–through the town they’re abandoning because of too many aliens. Doctor lady remarks that she knows the neighborhood. Tom/Noah replies with a 45 minute lecture on the development of suburban neighborhoods as influenced by a consumerist economy and Indian murder. Haha, just kidding. It’s just a nonsequitur about Indians. Whom we murdered through smallpox. Just like the aliens are doing to us–except with cylons. Did you remember that Tom/Noah is a professor? It’s okay, Doctor lady reminds us. Then he makes a crack about tenure–just in case you missed it.
They scavenge for food at some convenience stores but there’s not enough. Tom/Noah tries to diplomatically get Weaver to give him some men and weapons so they can go back for more food. Tom/Noah wants half the men (50); he gets 6. And weapons? Just the stuff they have with them, plus as many magazines as they can carry. What about an RPG? No. C4? No.
It’s okay, Tom/Noah the professor states, “We’ll make do.”
Umm. So the military commander sends them off with inadequate men and weapons (as implied by the fact that Tom/Noah, second in command, asks and receives only fractions of what he, presumably, believes necessary). Why exactly? Does Weaver want the men to all die so he has fewer people to feed? Does he just want to make Tom/Noah suffer? Does he think Tom/Noah is just going to randomly antagonize some aliens and waste weapons for the hell of it?
Sexy doctor lady asks Tom/Noah “Are you sure about this?”
His son the scout and son’s girlfriend the scout volunteer to go along (because “Weaver is more likely to get me killed than you are”). Asian guy is going too–and he stole some C4 for the mission.
So in the last few minutes we have been told that this military operation is being run by a petty man with a penchant for handicapping his completely necessary for survival missions and his men think that going along on an under-weaponed jaunt into dangerous territory is somehow less potentially fatal than staying with the bulk of the force and the RPGs AND we have theft. Wow. I am inspired by this show’s view of military competency.
We also have two, TWO black men. That’s almost as many black men as white men. Oh dear, we can’t have that. One of them is clearly going to die before the show is over.
Cue scene of little kid, on the day of his birthday: “Dad, I just want everything back the way it was.” I feel bad for this kid–not the character–the little kid. I don’t know what kind of direction they’re giving him. It appears to be mostly “Mope!”
Hal and his girlfriend are sent to scout–out on motorbikes. Because that’s subtle. Tom/Noah mistakenly calls the bullets hollow nose–because you can very easily work your way up to second in command of a large military resistance without knowing the proper nomenclature. His son mocks him mercilessly. Sorry, I mean, the son speaks in time with the rising swell of music:
Just remembering 7 or 8 months ago you wouldn’t let me ride my bike over to Julien’s at night because I didn’t have a bike light. Now you’re offering me extra ammo.
Some things don’t
Tom/Noah whines, a hitch in his voice. Cue manly hug between father and son.
At least the show never gave us the “You’re too young to fight!” argument the characters no doubt had a couple of months back (the one small advantage of starting the show in the middle of it all). Moments later Hal is hanging out on a river bed when a bunch of mechs and harnessed kids walk by–oh look, it’s missing son Ben!
Hal runs back to his dad to say he saw Ben–Hal insists they go and get him right now (because that’s smart), “screw that food thing.” Most of the others agree–thus displaying their undying loyalty to the survival of the gigantic group of non-harnessed individuals on the run.
Tom/Noah, because he’s a professor and therefore not completely brain dead says no. And beats his son to the ground: “We do this the right way, or we all die! We get the food, we bring it to the group, and then we get Ben.” They come up with a plan, offhandedly mention the possibility of attack so that Noah Wyle can lecture us again: History is full of inferior forces causing so much trouble that the invading army leaves. Then he mentions a slew of historical examples (remember, he’s a professor and also played a Librarian in some other TNT movie) with which none of them are impressed until he says “Red Sox / Yankees -04” (because apparently none of these kids have any education whatsoever but think baseball is an appropriate analogy for this situation–you know, where that game in which everyone is roughly the same age, skill level and team size play against each other for jewelry) and they head to the food distribution center.
Here’s another problem: most food doesn’t last. So what the hell are they getting from these places? Here the director was smart and was sure to make this scene dark so that we don’t know what they’re grabbing–but the distribution center looks a lot more full and organized than I would expect in an apocalyptic scenario (these aliens were in the skies for a while before the first attack–have none of these writers ever been in a town where a hurricane is about to hit? People get into fights about toilet paper). Hal eventually climbs up top to get–cooking utensils? He grabs a bunch of boxes of crock pots and throws them to the ground–unfortunately for him there’s a skitter that jumps out at him. There’s a gun fight and a mech shows up. They blow up the mech with c4 then the skitter is back, approaching Tom/Noah quickly. Hal shoots it from behind and they all gather to stare at it as it dies.
It looks like it’s trying to talk to them and here’s where I first start wondering if there’s something different about the skitters–or at least this one. The skitter never fired a weapon–only the mechs have guns. What if the mechs are running the show, and the skitters are slaves just like the harnessed kids. What if the skitter wasn’t jumping out at Hal, but was merely trying to get his attention to warn him about the mech outside. That would almost be awesome.
The fighters return with the food and all the townspeople converge. Tom/Noah reveals his son is still alive to Weaver–there’s a tense argument about who is or isn’t going back. Tom/Noah wins with a “He’s my son.”
There is hope for civilization! Mindless consumerism lives on!
Tom/Noah missed his youngest son’s birthday party, so they have a hostess cake by the river. Hal saves the day with “that thing you got for him”. It’s a rip stick–just like little mopey used to have! Mopey rides around while all the adults watch. Aww, it’s almost like things are back to normal. See, we may have cylons and buggers destroying all of our towns, but a little kid shares his useless toy with some other kids while old people watch. There is hope for civilization! Mindless consumerism lives on!
The second half of the pilot is actually the second episode they latched onto the pilot like a leprotic remora. It opens with Tom/Noah and his team in front of an armory. They throw a ball that a dog chases to… do what exactly? Ostensibly it’s to see if it’s a trap… but I don’t understand what the dog is supposed to do–or why they brought it with them in the first place. The dog has the same problem I have. When the mech comes around the corner, the dog sits down and stares, eventually starting to bark. As the mech advances, the most idiotic kid in the universe calls “Nemo come back!” and runs towards the dog and the giant metal thing with guns. They retreat–completely failing at their one mission.
Back at their camp, Weaver has an argument with the doctor about why the soldiers are all sleeping in houses, while the civilians are all in tents.
Weaver then gives the most logical answer in the history of the universe: His soldiers are running around killing things. They get the least amount of sleep, so the one thing he can do for them is ensure that they sleep comfortably. The civilians, on the other hand, need to be able to move–quickly–if they pull up camp. Soldiers know how to move; civilians don’t. It’s safer if the civilians are all grouped together in tents. This is completely and totally reasonable. If they don’t like it, they can abandon the protection of the soldiers and the constant supply of oatmeal (which, btw, is the food that the soldiers find, collect, and fight buggers and cylons for). The doctor isn’t happy and says that they’re not “just eaters”. They clean, they haul trash and water. True, but that doesn’t mean that you get to sleep in beds. It means you get people willing to sacrifice themselves for your safety. Get over it.
Tom/Noah lectures on Civilians vs. Military and then has a conversation with the Biology professor who says some kid pointed out that when humans build robots we make them look like us. But skitters have six legs and the Cylons are bipedal. What gives? Tom/Noah says it’s probably a psychological impact thing. I’m still hoping for my ‘Cylons are the real enemy’ theory.
Later we have a gratuitous conversation about religion between the girl that likes Hal, Hal, and Hal’s slightly jealous girlfriend. Girl that likes Hal piously states that her faith is stronger than ever. She also says that she doesn’t pay for God to give her things, but prays that God shows her what she can do for him.
I have never wanted to hurt someone so much. I want to wipe that smug “I am righteous” smile off your face with my fist. Your jealousy is totally justified, blonde girlfriend. Token religious girl isn’t even subtle. She’s practically drooling when she looks at Hal.
Later, Tom/Noah and his crew go back to the armory, walking into a trap: but it was a human trap. Another group of survivors has been waiting and they shoot second black guy in the stomach with arrows (HA! Oh wait, so he didn’t technically die by the end of the first episode–but we’re still in the pilot). This moment also gives us the best line in the show:
“You’re gonna die dude.”
Wow, that’s some comfort.
Anyway, second group forces Tom/Noah and his crew to surrender by putting guns to the heads of Hal and Blonde girlfriend (I think her name is Karen…I should probably put on my feminist hat and start calling her by her name–maybe if they made her into a real character, I wouldn’t have a problem remembering who she is).
When I first watched this show–this is when I started getting impressed. A second group, that isn’t resistance–seems to hate the resistance (they’ve been watching the 2nd Mass for two days and they want their GTO and 50 cal mounted on top) provides some much needed “Humans aren’t all martyred survivors” perspective. Pope, the leader of this group is great: glib, bit of a Jack Sparrow charm. He sends Hal back to the 2nd Mass to give the terms (the life of Noah/Tom, etc for the GTO and 50 cal).
When he’s alone with Tom/Noah, he points out that this isn’t the Revolutionary War. This is colonization vs. Indians–and guess which group we are? He and his group are thrilled by the invasion because they’re out hunting bugs. Which they enjoy immensely.
Pope monologues for a while, giving some terrible advice on killing bugs. Don’t go for the head, he says. Shoot the legs and slow them down. Then go for the head. That’s only true if you’re statistically more likely to hit the legs. Since there are about 6 or 8 of them, maybe that’s true, but I doubt it. Problem is the legs are spread apart and move around a lot more. Now if you’re up close with a blunt weapon–definitely go for the legs rather than the body. The former is much more accessible.
When Hal tells Weaver about the hostages and ransom demands, Weaver gives the second most logical answer in the universe: no deal, but for the dumbest reason ever: “They’ll bleed us dry.” No, the reason is fighters really aren’t that special. A 50 caliber rifle mounted on top of a working car, however, is irreplaceable.
Hal is taken upstairs to wait until they all flee (because the group of 5 armed men is a huge threat to over 100 fighters with a 50 cal rifle + god knows what else). But Mike lets him go. Sexy doctor lady, whom Weaver told to stay for… no reason except she was going to be needed by Hal in a few minutes apparently… leaves with Hal (oh yeah, one of Pope’s group was shot in the leg. It was completely unimportant so I didn’t mention it).
They go back to the school, save unknown’s leg while Pope and his men go after the GIANT RESISTANCE ARMY. Umm. Okay. And it is completely successful. They sneak up, shoot some flares (which the aliens will pick up on and come shooting) and demand the food and the 50 cal.
Back at Pope’s hangout: Maggie, the token woman in Pope’s group, shoots all the bad guys. Apparently they raped her at some point and she didn’t like that.
Back at Resistance army: There’s a shoot out in which Pope’s group is killed, Pope captured and later everyone is holed up in the school in which Pope’s group was hiding.
Now at new resistance hangout school: Weaver makes some random speech to Noah/Tom in which he blames Noah/Tom for getting his crew captured thus ruining Weaver’s logic streak.
The episode ends with Noah preparing for his ‘rescue Ben’ mission and a scene of Tom/Noah playing lacrosse with his son. It’s the exact same scene AND music we had at the end of the first episode–or half of the pilot.
This is not a good show. But few shows are good in the beginning. The only interesting person is Pope and though he’s a prisoner by the end of the pilot, I doubt he’s going to be a main player. Damn shame.
There’s a distinct lack of humor, even though occasionally they try. The female characters are appallingly flat, but so are the male characters so I guess that’s just equality at work. Overall it reminds me a lot of Jericho–in that they’re rehashing all the obvious points: we need food! We need weapons! Kids are our future and it is sad that they are harnessed!
Sigh. Maybe I should watch BSG on Netflix instead.