TNT's new alien-invasion series, Falling Skies, might just be the best post-apocalyptic refugee drama on television right now. And that's no faint praise considering that last fall Frank Darabont, who established himself during the 1990s as America's most accomplished purveyor of feel-good horror, debuted his AMC zombie survival series The Walking Dead, a glorious existential gross-out of a melodrama that has been rightly praised by critics and audiences alike. Falling Skies isn't as ostentatiously artful, its iffy visual effects are less immaculate, and it lacks a (graphic) novelistic pedigree, but it is, despite all this, an absolute blast to watch. In our contemporary television climate, critics—myself included—tend to value innovation over tradition, slow-burn over narrative momentum, and heavy serialization over the standalone episode format. But Falling Skies is an ecstatic throwback, a reminder of the joys of good old action and adventure.
If The Walking Dead is a show about, well, death, Falling Skies is undoubtedly a show about life. The series follows the exploits of a group of survivors in the aftermath of a colossal alien invasion that's destroyed most major cities on Earth and left millions of children apparently enslaved. But the show begins several months after the initial invasion, and, at least in the first few episodes, it doesn't dramatize any of the actual event or its immediate wake. Instead, the focus is on depicting the makeshift organizations, alliances, and social structures that have sprouted up, post-doomsday. As a result, the audience is struck first not by the massive loss of life, but rather, by the frankly surprising number of healthy Earthlings still wandering around the affluent suburbs of Boston, and the vibrancy of the community they've preserved.
These survivors have been organized by the remnants of the U.S. military into two groups: fighters and civilians. The fighters in the particular unit with whom we are embedded—cheekily named the 2nd Massachusetts in one of the show's numerous references to the Revolutionary War—are led by Weaver, a hard-nosed, ponytailed, Army vet played by the fantastic character actor Will Patton, doing what he does best and seething orders through a jaw that seems wired shut. The civilians are led by our hero Tom Mason (the unflappable and compulsively likable Noah Wyle), a formerly tenured American history professor at BU. Tom's emeritus position, and especially his expertise in military history, make him a uniquely valuable tactical resource for the growing human insurgence as well as a mercifully new kind of hero for a narrative like this. Despite the admittedly exhausting number of tenure jokes Tom's character prompts, mostly in the awkwardly written first half of the pilot, it's refreshing to see a ragtag group of survivors led through an apocalyptic wasteland by somebody who has a sense of historical perspective.
Each episode, we learn something new about both the circumstances of the alien occupation and the inner lives of the vast cast of characters, but as much as these episodes serve the end of furthering a serialized plot, they're each mobilized by at least one discrete rescue mission, battle, or otherwise generally madcap adventure. The relish with which Tom repeatedly bounds into the maw of danger and the electric optimism with which he conducts his shoot-'em-up escapades are contagious. Episode by episode, we become less drawn to the revelation of mysteries—though there certainly are plenty of mysteries, and they're more than sufficiently intriguing—than we do to finding out what perilous crusade this band of scruffy insurgents will find themselves embroiled in next.
A large part of this energy and spirit is generated by the scruffy gang itself, which includes Tom's son Hal, played by Drew Roy, a reasonably appealing graduate of the Taylor Lautner School of Looking Hot, Kicking Ass, and Riding Motorcycles, and a leather-clad biker/gourmand—played by the adorably dastardly Colin Cunnigham—who emerges as an unlikely interlocutor and foil for Tom's heroic intellectual. And the women! From Moon Bloodgood's saintly, sexy pediatrician, to Sarah Carter's post-traumatic aliensploitation heroine, to Seychelle Gabriel's teenage priestess, Falling Skies is chockfull of rich and compelling roles for women.
The show is produced by the dynamic duo of screenwriter Robert Rodat and cinematic demigod Steven Spielberg, who, it seems, has recently decided to personally supervise any and all tributes made to him—J.J. Abrams's Super 8 and the upcoming Fox dinosaur adventure Terra Nova, to name a few. Rodat is responsible, most notably, for two of the most painful films of the 1990s (the grisly Saving Private Ryan and the unbearably goofy The Patriot) and he really benefits here from Spielberg's light touch and sense of whimsy.
Falling Skies is by far less cinematic, less transcendent of the medium than its zombie counterpart, The Walking Dead. It never produces an alien with the same kind of strange life as the zombies that walk around on AMC—and I'm not talking about the snoozy detectives on The Killing—and the musical score is an embarrassingly trite presence in almost every scene. But Falling Skies has something else going for it. So far, The Walking Dead has produced six episodes, five of which were nearly perfect television experiments, and one of which, the finale, was a nearly total failure, a shark-jump-level forfeiture of everything that was great about the show until that point. Think big, fail big, I suppose. Falling Skies, on the other hand, while equally ambitious, has thus far presented that many episodes to reviewers, each better written than the last. And what it lacks in grime, spectacle, and existential dread, it makes up for in Spielbergian wonder and consistency. The show, on the model of other epic sci-fi programs like Battlestar Galactica and The X-Files, still has the potential to break ground. But for now, it's telling a gripping, well-made story; it might not be ready to be appreciated as art, but it's impossible not to love it as entertainment.