June 20, 2011

THE SKED @ CABLE REVIEW: “Falling Skies”

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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FALLING SKIES – Sundays 10PM on TNT – If Nothing Else Is On…
Or:  how is FALLING SKIES not Terra Nova?  I’ve raved about FOX’s Fall dinosaur spectacle, and here’s another Steven Spielberg special-effects extravaganza, centered around a family trying to hold onto its identity and its life in a hair-raising environment–so what’s the problem?
One is sheer familiarity.  Other than the Jurassic Park series, we haven’t had all that many fantasies about modern-day humans mingling with dinosaurs, so although Terra is obviously heavily indebted to Jurassic, it still feels somewhat fresh.  Falling Skies, on the other hand, is set in the same post-apocalyptic world of The Walking Dead and Jericho, with the same alien invaders as V.  The “mech” robots sent by the aliens to hunt humans are slicker versions of the “toasters” in Battlestar Galactica, and the “skitters,” the aliens themselves, have that same vaguely walrusy look we’ve seen in any number of alien thrillers.

The bigger issue, though is as always the script. Here we have to mention the phenomenon of the 2-hour premiere.  Very often, this marketing “event” is really just a packaging of the original 1-hour pilot with a second episode that may have been produced months later; there can be significant differences between the two, including different writers and directors.  (This may also be the case with Terra Nova, of which I’ve seen only the first hour–although that one ends with a cliffhanger, which hopefully means more consistency with the initial hour.)  In the case of Falling Skies, the first hour of the premiere was written by Robert Rodat (the show’s creator and best known for his script for Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan), and the second hour by Graham Yost (creator of FX’s terrific Justified).  Yost’s hour is far superior.
The Rodat hour sets out the basic situation:  former history professor Tom Mason (Noah Wyle), his wife killed by the alien invaders, and one of his sons taken hostage in a high-tech version of slavery that involves harnesses injected into the body, is now a soldier, trying to rescue his imprisoned son, watch over his other 2 boys, and also retain some level of humanity.  His commander, and also adversary, is Weaver (Will Patton), a doctrinaire soldier who cares little for civilians; and Tom’s friend–and, almost certainly, eventual romantic interest–is doctor Anne Glass (Moon Bloodgood).  There’s a lot of windy speech-making about the military’s interests versus the general populace, and clumsy exposition (we know Tom is a history teacher because he can’t open his mouth without citing some ancient battle or other).
Yost’s script is much better, partly because a lot of the background is out of the way, but also because it has action that’s tauter and more surprising (although, the series budget having kicked in, there are fewer special effects).  There are also some sharp new characters, notably John Pope (Colin Cunningham), a cunning bandit who threatens to kill Tom, but who (if the show is at all smart) will become one of the good guys. If Falling Skies can continue along this path, the show may become a better way to waste a summer hour.
The premiere’s ratings were good but not sensational:  its 5.9 million total viewers were less than TNT had for its launch of Rizzoli & Isles last year (which was promoted as far less of an event), while its 2 rating in 18-49s was well below the premiere of Walking Dead on AMC.  Still, if these numbers hold up, the network will be quite happy, and with the season’s end of Game of Thrones (we have to wait months until it returns!), there’s a place on the night for this genre.  If the show’s second hour is to be trusted, the quality of Falling Skies may be rising, which would be good news for TNT, and for us.  

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."