‘Falling Skies’ provides plenty of post-apocalyptic kicks
Sometimes, you just crave a good old-fashioned alien-invasion drama. You want full-on apocalyptic suspense, set amid urban ruins and the kind of social anarchy that forces crooks and aristocrats onto the same side. You want heroism in the face of otherworldly evil, and you want otherworldly evil all up in your face. You want to squirm as giant, slimy, lizardy insects scurry across the screen.
And at those moments, you deserve “Falling Skies,’’ a new eight-week, 10-hour series from executive producer Steven Spielberg and “Saving Private Ryan’’ writer Robert Rodat. It does the trick.
The TNT show, premiering Sunday at 9 p.m., is not based on an elaborate mythology that will unfold incrementally while the writers taunt us with clues. It is not a puzzle of mysterious motives that we must piece together, on the order of sci-fi series such as “V,’’ “The X-Files,’’ “Fringe,’’ and, of course, “Lost.’’ “Falling Skies’’ is just a dependable, us-vs.-them action-adventure series about scrappy resistance fighters battling nasty aliens who landed six months earlier. It has a solid Saturday-matinee tone, as the characters dart through the wrecked streets with dirt on their cheeks and rifles on their shoulders.
There is an important spin to “Falling Skies,’’ however, one that is critical to its success. The show is as much a family drama as an end-of-the-world nightmare; Spielberg’s influence is clear throughout. Noah Wyle is extremely sympathetic as history professor Tom Mason, who is second in command of the Massachusetts group of fighters. Mason’s wife was killed in the initial attack, and now he and two of his sons are hoping to retrieve his third son from the clutches of the aliens. Too often, TV’s sci-fi creators fail to give us characters to identify with, focusing instead on special effects and plot manipulations. But the father-son-bond material in “Falling Skies’’ brings humanity to the story and grounds it in emotion rather than spectacle.
Mason’s missing son has been grabbed by the aliens, whom the resisters have dubbed “skitters,’’ and he and other kids are being guarded at a blown-out hospital by the aliens’ killing machines, or “mechs.’’ These stolen children have been fitted with harnesses that look like tentacles on their backs, and they gather scrap metal for the skitters in a state of hypnosis. Mason and his more aggressive, militaristic commander, Weaver (Will Patton), are constantly leading their people on missions to scavenge for arms, food, and gas, but Mason is fixated on rescuing his son.
This family emphasis — and Mason is not the only resistance fighter bent on finding loved ones — helps to distinguish “Falling Skies’’ from TV’s other successful post-apocalyptic series, AMC’s “The Walking Dead.’’ This show is warmer than “The Walking Dead,’’ which has the similar premise of bands of people battling with monsters on Earth. Wyle, in particular, is a likable lead, as his professor cites historic precedents for his actions and refuses to give up hope. He isn’t complicated, but that’s in keeping with the show’s straightforward vibe. Moon Bloodgood is fine as his potential love interest, a doctor with a secret heartbreak, and Colin Cunningham brings a bit of levity as a criminal who also happens to be a chef.
The simplicity of “Falling Skies’’ extends even to the symbolic level. I suppose you could see the resistance fighters as a nod to the protesters of the Arab Spring. But rather than clobbering us with a metaphor for political upheaval, the show feels more like a post-political vision. It’s as if the invasion scenario represents a dissatisfaction with politics in general, and an escape from partisan bickering. There are tensions among the humans in terms of the resistance power structure, but ultimately those tensions appear to subside as they join to fight a bigger enemy.
By the way, “Falling Skies’’ is set in the Boston area, and it’s chock-full of mentions of Acton, Watertown, Belmont, Dorchester, West Newton, and — huh?! — Route 3 to Revere. However, the series was not filmed here, which is obvious to us local types. It looks fine — Canada works — but it lacks signs of damaged local icons that might lend realism. The special effects, on the other hand, are seamless, as the skitters scamper on sidewalks and the mechs stomp forth, sounding like marching armies. Spielberg and Rodat are not coy about revealing the skitters to us, in all their wrinkly, greenish-brown viscosity. Like most things in the show, they are what they are.