In the past year or so, Stephen Spielberg has debuted 4 TV series: Falling Skies, Terra Nova, The River and Smash. One has been cancelled outright (The River); one is evidently being significantly retooled for its second season (Smash); one is in limbo (Terra Nova) and the first of the four to premiere, last summer’s Falling Skies was by far the most consistent and successful, back for a 2nd season after being last year’s basic cable’s #1 new series.
Falling Skies chronicles the chaotic aftermath of an alien attack that has left most of the world completely incapacitated. As second-in-command, Tom Mason (Noah Wyle), a former history professor, has become an unlikely leader of the 2nd Massachusetts civilian resistance. After making sure that humans were enough of a nuisance to give the aliens pause, Tom went willingly with them on one of their space ships at the end of last season.
Three months have passed. The civilian resistance continues despite heavy casualties and no confirmation of other survivors or military efforts besides this small group. Mason’s sudden return is cause for celebration and concern, testing the bonds and finding the cracks in a variety of relationships. The premiere reveals at least some of what happened to Mason after he boarded the ship and further lays the parameters of the sibling rivalry between Mason’s teenaged sons Hal (Drew Roy) and Ben (Connor Jessup), a tension that owes as much to Ben’s having been harnessed by the aliens before being reunited with his family last season as to adolescent bravado and the need to grow up fast in this war-torn world. Mason’s third son, Matt (Maxim Knight) is only 8 and wants to help the resistance but does not have the experience to temper his eagerness, making decisions that have unexpected consequences.
More quickly than The Walking Dead TV series has addressed, the first four episodes of this new season of Falling Skies begin to raise questions about childhood, growing up and how to be a responsible parent (or how to raise children) in an apocalyptic world. This may be because Falling Skies has a greater presence of children, literally – as with Mason’s and other kids among the survivors – and nostalgically, as with Weaver’s (Will Patton) looking out for one of Matt’s orphaned friends while wondering what happened to his own daughter. As a result, Falling Skies has a similar family-centered scenario to Terra Nova but dramatically mines that much more effectively. Falling Skies deserves its praise and success.
Season Two has some new faces and will introduce more aliens, but some of the surprises have more to do with characters we’ve gotten to know through the first season. Moon Bloodgood returns as the doctor and Mason’s love interest. Colin Cunningham keeps John Pope true to his nature. All of the leads are strong; let’s face it, the show is filled with good actors, but Connor Jessup is the standout so far in Season Two, making Ben the character to watch. This is partly the writing, sure, but Jessup delivers on the performance and makes Ben more complex and emotionally nuanced than I anticipated last season.
For those who love the cinematic work of directors and cinematographers, there’s interesting blocking of several moving conversations that are choreographed in long traveling shots, weaving in and out of frame both visually and aurally. In terms of the look and atmosphere of the series, the new season feels grittier to me, perhaps befitting of the warzone aspects of the landscape and the characters’ desperation and doubt being emphasized more.
As you might guess, Mason’s little trip on the spaceship did not result in the truce we might have hoped for. The war is not over yet. But all does not seem lost. Mason, his clan and the couple of hundred survivors he helps shepherd have a long road ahead of them. Luckily, they’re bringing us along for the ride.
Falling Skies’ 2nd Season Premieres Sunday June 17th, 9pm (ET/PT), on TNT.