By J. Lewit.
I love science fiction. Watching a new sci-fi show for me is like watching a beloved child on his first attempt to pilot a jet airliner. Fiery death is assured, but I promised the kid I’d watch and wave.
I gave “Falling Skies” until the second episode, just in case the pilot was a false start, but I’m afraid the luster is lacking on all fronts. The writing is generic, clumsy and hoky. The direction is often confused when it isn’t cloying and the performances are, for the most part, as depressing as the endless oatmeal the endless refugees endlessly complain about. The pilot lacks pace and event to the point that it felt like a mid-season episode the producers told the writers to stretch the budget for. There is a difference between “aliens are in this scene” and “event” … that difference is left as an exercise for the TV exec.
The cold open ran like a title-card litany. Having a faceless child tell us ten versions of the series’ logline is a waste of time – and worse – it steamrolled the effective honesty of the scene’s end. A child telling us that the man in the picture, who was alive this morning, may have died since it was drawn – that’s an opening.
Sci-fi lesson number two for the TV exec: the universe doesn’t need to be explained. You just need to start with scenes that don’t depend on information the audience doesn’t have. Good storytelling works the information needed to understand later scenes into the drama of the scenes that come before it. Okay? End of lesson – now get out there and earn the right to have the opinions you get paid for! Yay!
Noah Wyle’s character (Tom Mason, ex-history professor) comes on screen, but isn’t introduced, in the first piece of violence – which remains undramatic by picking the wrong battle to introduce the war with. Since this is an action sequence, it’s easy to blame the direction for being unfocused, but it’s really the writing that chose the wrong thing to show us first.
There’s no reason for our heroes to survive the first scene other than to assume that the bad guys are fond of giving up or are easily bored. I’m unhappy to say this continually happens in the rest of the series I’ve seen – alien threats show up, promo-worthy laser blast clips happen – and then the consequences of that threat magically go away. In fact, episode two starts with the heroes being chased by an evil robot, and then – title card. We come back in to reporting mission failure (why is Tom in charge?). How they manage to survive, or why the alien machine would stop pursuing them is never mentioned. It’s almost as if the writers don’t know how or why anything happens, and think we shouldn’t care, either. Just look at the pretty aliens. Aliens!
Let’s be clear – it’s not that the show is trying to develop mystery. The characters are clearly acting as if the action makes sense to them. The opening doesn’t establish the terror of the aliens despite the death and lasers because it’s just senseless – the characters are just running around for no reason. Neither does it establish how the humans have been able to survive, unless the audience assumes that the aliens are invading on a budget, and only show up long enough to make the watch-next-week clips. Wyle’s character takes no action worthy of a hero’s introduction – he runs away while most of his people are killed running a risk we can’t understand. Maybe they were all playing street hockey and were attacked. Neither does it establish him as a good tactician – in a moment where he could successfully ambush three aliens – at close range while prone under cover – he doesn’t fire. And not because they need to be quiet to get away – although that’s what the scene wants us to believe… Wyle and friend noisily run out the back door, where everyone is yelling and screaming. So they are clearly in no danger of being chased down by those aliens, who were right behind them, that they were just so scared of that they had to super-silently agree to so noisily escape from …
As much exposition as the cast spouts – it’s really all abstract plot color and not any actual plot. The stuff that is necessary we can usually wait to talk about when we get to it. A good case in point is “the harness”. I won’t explain what it does – but the show shouldn’t have, either. It should have waited until characters had to make a decision about what to do about one. I think the writers think they are really clipping along with the info, trying to make it seem organic – but they’re doing the opposite, bloating moments that should be about other things.
There’s barely a story here. The main obstacle the heroes face in the pilot is one of logistics, and the main disagreement early on is whether or not to split up the group – all of which us playing along at home can skip. The first episode doesn’t get around to a story point until about half-way in, when Wyle and his son disagree about a mission priority. I wish someone had given the production team the note to start the pilot there. Everything up until then is fluff. The arguments made on each side would have established almost all of the exposition needed from the previous half-hour.
Worse, a lot of the actions the characters take don’t really make sense. Large, noisy groups mill around in broad daylight – meaning they aren’t in any danger, despite how much danger the show would like us to imagine they are in – instead of an atmosphere of dread, it’s an atmosphere of – “why are we alive?” … a question the show can’t answer, probably because their season outline is saving it for later. You know, one of those revelations that make the whole audience ask: why didn’t the characters think of that fourteen episodes ago?
Scenes are often choppy to the point of confusion – as if an editor was forced to cut the sense of some scenes and had nothing good to work with. Wyle gives the set-speech of the episode after he walks off camera without cause – and then he walks back in and philosophizes in answer to a line that it doesn’t really follow. The point of the speech, as the camera tries to show us in the faces of his troops, is to forego despair and commit to the fight – but the troops weren’t really in despair. So the scene makes him out to be father-knows-best giving the wrong speech at the wrong moment. After that jumble, I can’t imagine students following his classes, much less anyone following him into battle.
Second to last, but not second to least, the plot is mostly illogical. Battles with the aliens focus too much on chance when Wyle is supposed to be a tactician. Worse, the rules of engagement don’t follow - if it was wise for them to run in the opening battle, where they seem to be holding a perimeter around a civilian area - its even wiser for the recon team to run from the later ambush, because its clearly an ambush. I’m not spoiling anything, because they talk about it plenty before it matters to the story: it seems that jacketed, hollow-point machine gun rounds don’t harm the aliens, but a shotgun blast will kill it, as long as you’re close enough. It’s silly enough that most of the plot is about getting more guns when guns don’t seem to help – and that everyone wastes a lot of ammunition that the factories aren’t making anymore firing at enemies it can’t hurt – but the “get close” idea is like saying a sword can’t hurt a tank but that a pencil stab will destroy it if you do it up close. What’s so disappointing about this is that its fine – great even – for aliens not to make sense and for a show to develop mysteries. But our characters aren’t following the facts on screen, aren’t trying to solve them – they don’t even seem to notice that they’re mysteries – so either the characters are stupid or the world doesn’t make sense.
What’s silly is – there could be a story there. “Everyone is so afraid of the aliens, they haven’t discovered their weakness yet, that if you get in close…” I wish the show would actually try to tell a story like that. Instead, it acts as if it just can’t be bothered.
And for the love of Roddenberry, please can the Hallmark card piano music that plays every time Wyle’s character stops the non-plot to play dad for 30 seconds. The happy, life-is-the-little-things moment of the kid’s birthday present is materialistic to the point where I suspect product placement, but it would manage to be an actual moment in a show mostly devoid of them if the music wasn’t tap-dancing all over it.
Can it be fixed? Possibly. The production team’s already done some triage, since it seems they lumped together the pilot from two stand-alone episodes, presumably in order to get the only charismatic characters in the show on screen for the first review.
A suggestion: look at the introduction of Stephen Weber’s character in episode two. He walks on, Wyle gives him a surprised look, and we cut to commercial. That’s it, no story. Much later we explore the conflict between these two guys. Why we don’t start there, I have no idea, other than to suspect that the writers are trying to make four minutes last forty-five. Instead of even a hint of conflict, we just get more unnecessary exposition, information that we can get just as easily in later scenes that flirt with conflict and choices. Of course, it’s possible to take the same words Wyle and Weber speak there, and infuse them with nuanced tension or a masterful grasp of the drama of small moments, but the performances and direction here can’t be bothered to escape the flat drone they’re selling as realism.
I doubt the show has time to find itself now, but there are a few hopeful notes: late intro Maggie is interesting, as the only survivor who seems to be affected in any way by what she’s survived. Then there’s the anti-hero destined to find redemption in sacrifice; compared to these two, everyone else is an extra in “The Walking Dead” without the cool makeup.
Late in the second episode, my final hopes were dashed. What might have been the best scene of the show so far, as Wyle and Weber reached a confrontation their characters should have had forty minutes earlier, fractured into confusing and unnecessary backstory and then dwindled into a rehash of the hopelessly abstract “we can’t fight without hope” dialogue.
Bleearrggh. Falling Skies went plop on its face – sorry, Sci-Fi fans. But you all know to never give up hope, right?