There are generally two opinions on TNT's Falling Skies, and they go something like this:
Sci-fi fan #1: Whoa this is awesome alien invasion OMG!!!
Sci-fi fan #2: What the frak is this garbage?
I'm here to tell you that I fall somewhere in the middle (cop-out alert!). But I have reasons because I can see both sides of the argument. Superfans ignore the show's problems (the writing), and haters don't appreciate what does work (the production). I don't think there's a more frustrating show on television for me than Falling Skies, because it is constantly knocking on the door of fulfilling its potential but can't quite get there because of a ball-and-chain of mediocrity that's holding it back. That leaves it in this horrible limbo where we can't decide whether to hang on or just let go.
But Season 2 is here, and tonight's two-hour premiere revealed that Falling Skies has been working out in the off-season, because it once again inched closer to being something good. Unfortunately, the execution still just wasn't there. I generally think of television as comprised of two individual components: what goes on the page and what comes out on the screen. Watching an episode of Falling Skies is a regular exercise in alternating exhilaration and eye-rolls, because one side simply isn't doing its job.
The first muscle Falling Skies flexed in Season 2 was its new look, and it's a very welcome makeover. With the school fort a thing of the past and the survivors essentially a gang of nomads with .50-caliber guns, there's bleakness to their situation. In Season 1, their backs were against the wall, but at least they HAD walls. Now there are no walls, just an expanse of the unknown and threats all around (or so they tell us). And that comes across in the much darker look and feel of the series, as opposed to the summer-school atmosphere of Season 1's safe haven.
There must have been a memo passed around the TNT offices with "MORE ACTION AND MORE ALIENS" in all-caps across the top, because the bullets were flyin'! I'm pretty sure the first two hours of Season 2 had more of both than the entire first season. This isn't rocket surgery; include more aliens and action and our dopamine will flow a bit faster. You won't hear me complaining about more action and aliens, especially with Falling Skies, because if the show is giving us aliens and action, then it's not trying to give us character stories. Sometimes we just want to see mean old aliens get what's coming to them, and right now that's all Falling Skies is. As for the quality of its effects, it's important to remember that this is a television series and those who think the effects suck need to hold television and its manic production schedule to a different standard. Of course it's not going to look as good as Prometheus. If we get eight more episodes where the quality of effects matches what we saw tonight, I'll be happy. Green screens FTW! And coupling the effects with the calmer, exterior post-apocalyptic scenes actually works quite well. Until NBC's Revolution debuts, there won't be any other show that really looks like this. And who doesn't love the long, tracking one-take shots that director Greg Beeman is so fond of?
As for what actually happened, well there's Falling Skies' biggest problem. Storytelling and characterization are still not the show's strong suit, and probably never will be. The first two episodes were a bit messy in setting up this season's overarching storylines, crowding the space with general ideas instead of spending more time on developing important ones.
One of the core plots of the early going will be what the aliens did to Tom during his incarceration, and I just don't believe for a second that Tom would freak out and ask to be restrained just because he had a bad dream about an alien trying to make out with him in his sleep (that was the dream, right?). The writers are laying it on real thick with this one, and they're doing so with other characters' opinions rather than evidence that we, the audience, can process. It's almost as if they're just trying to get that part or the story out of the way so they can get to the next part, whatever that may be. But come on, Tom asking to be tied up because he thinks he may be influenced by aliens and could be a threat to the resistance is just crazy talk. The only thing I can think of is that Tom may have picked up a bondage fetish on the alien ship. Here's a solution for the survivors: Keep a close eye on him! Make Dai watch his ass while Tom continues to be the badass hero he's supposed to be. Let him clear everything with Weaver first. If Tom suggests taking all the kids for a picnic near an alien base, then hogtie him. There's no point in restraining him like he's on a diet and there are cupcakes in the fridge until there's evidence he needs to be.
Anyway, one thing this sketchy writing does allow us to play a game of, "What was the purpose of that?" In a flashback in the first episode, Tom came across that filthy girl with the motorcycle, saved her from some hobo, and then rode with her to meet up with the 2nd Mass. In the process, she served up a sliver of a backstory to complement her bad attitude. But just as Tom heard his buddies fighting aliens, she took off. So we're done with her? What was the purpose of that? Later, in real-time, Tom was still out in the medical truck when word arrived that a convoy of Mechs was approaching. The truck couldn't move, because it would cut the power to what was keeping Tom stable, so a few people stayed behind to make sure the Mechs don't kill Tom. Then the Mechs walked by without noticing them, everyone breathed a sigh of relief, and the truck drove back to meet up with the rest of the group. Say it with me, "What was the purpose of that?" And what about the fiberglass engine-wraps to keep the engines from showing up on alien's heat sensors (that the resistance just assumed the aliens had)? That problem was solved awfully fast... so fast it wasn't even really a problem yet. Everybody: "What was the purpose of that!?" I'm all for accepting that these moments could mean something later on, but good writing means that viewers will never ask, "What was the purpose of that?"
And there's got to be a better way of setting up a broken bridge than the one the writers settled on. Our survivors arrived at a bridge they needed to cross. It was in fine condition. But then a spaceship came flying by and Dai shot it down, blowing up the bridge in the process. Shouldn't these folks be solving problems they encounter instead of problems they cause? And not even a "My bad!" from Dai. Come on Dai, take some responsibility! Right now the members of the 2nd Mass should be more scared of their own incompetence than they are of the aliens. How are we supposed to root for these guys when they're the ones they need to watch out for?
If the time spent on these writing missteps had gone toward making Tom's self-restraint more plausible, the season opener would have been much better. Instead, we got a ton of half-stories. Effective television writing can't simply be "this happened then this happened then this happened," but that's how Falling Skies is treating it. Some of these threads could become compelling, as some of the show's choices have been great (getting everyone out of the school, the slowly unfolding alien hierarchy), but Falling Skies is tripping over its own feet trying to get there.
Ben's situation is the only thing that has any oomph so far. He's a total badass now (how rad was he in the opening sequence of the first episode?) and even looks more like a man this season (better posture, cropped hair instead of flowing locks) than before. The harness thing and its effects on the kids is the best thing about the show's story right now: Ben is become some sort of super soldier, while Rick, who is someplace somewhere probably jumping over things and climbing walls, developed completely different. And then there's Karen, who is literally a mouthpiece for the aliens.
Falling Skies probably has one of the most lopsided production-to-writing relationships on television, and that's frustrating. Based on these first two episodes, it appears that the production continued to get better during the off-season, while the writing stayed steady. But shows are more sustainable when that relationship is reversed. With more attention on action, aliens, and ambiance, Falling Skies should pick up a few more loyal fans, but without the proper scribes, it will never be great. And that's a shame.
– Will someone please give Anne (and pretty much everyone) something to do other than patch people up? I get the feeling she's getting bored with just being eye candy. However, if I were on this show I would probably hurt myself repeatedly just to spend time getting treated by Anne and Lourdes.
– The alien threat needs to feel more real. Right now, they show up when it's convenient for the story.
– There are a LOT of great television scores out there right now, but Falling Skies' isn't one of them.
– I hope Tom gave that Skitter pink eye through that eye worm. And it looks like next week's episode will start with an ambush.
– Big thumbs down on the "fake-out" of the blown-up bridge and Tom's demise. How stupid do they think we are? Stop it, Spielberg!
– "Tick... tick... boom." Adorable!
– I wonder how many takes it took Colin Cunningham, who plays Pope, to say the line "When life hands you lemons, you blow their friggin' heads off!" Bleh! Makes me squirm just typing it.
– How awesome is Jimmy's new Bieber-fied hairdo? It's extra left-to-right now!
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom