Falling Skies is back for its second season with a two-hour premiere that, as is so often the case with "special premiere events" these days, is actually two episodes shown back-to-back. So, Episodes 2.01 Worlds Apart and 2.02 Shall We Gather at the River constitute our relaunch into the post-invasion world of Tom Mason and the Second Massachusetts. It was not perfect, but definitely was tightly constructed and presented some solid science fiction in a watchable two hours..
If you're just joining this series, it's not too terribly difficult to get caught up. Last season, aliens swooped in and attacked the Earth, winning the war in relatively short order through surprise and superior technology. Now resistance armies are fighting the occupation. Our hero is Tom Mason (Noah Wyle), a history professor whose knowledge of battles of the past proves useful (sometimes cloyingly so, when he rambles on about historical context) to the current situation. In tonight's Season 2 premiere, Tom's impromptu history lectures are mentioned with fond irony by people who've been irritated by them in the past, and maybe that's a sign the show will try to be a little less heavy-handed in that regard (although I really like the conceit that a history professor is useful here; history is, after all, one way to learn battle tactics). Tom has three sons, who are part of the 2nd Mass. Weaver (Bill Paxton) is the head of the division and a career soldier. Pope (Colin Cunningham) is a smart-ass gang leader who has joined forces with the division to the consternation of many, sometimes including the audience.
How the alien thing goes is this: There are nasty creatures we call "skitters" who look like giant reptilian spiders. There are big mechanical soldier types called "mechs." Teens are kidnapped by the aliens, who attach harnesses to the teens which appear to enthrall and change them. The 2nd Mass has been able to remove harnesses from two kids, both of whom experience residual effects, including enhanced physical abilities. One of the kids missed the aliens and rejoined them, the other, Tom's son Ben, hates them.
Late in Season 1, Dr. Glass (Moon Bloodgood) dissects a skitter, discovering a harness inside it. It was obvious to me at that moment that the harness is meant to turn people (and probably other beings) into skitters, but in the S2 premiere we hear two characters wondering how skitters reproduce, so perhaps it's not meant to be as clear as I think.
In addition to skitters and mechs, at the end of S1 we learn there are "overlords," essentially Roswell-style "grays." In the finale last year, Tom Mason boarded an alien vessel to negotiate with an overlord. Now you're all caught up. See? Not painful at all.
There are places where Falling Skies is not bad, specifically, but rather too corny. Tom returns to the 2nd Mass three months later, found, at random in a battle situation, by none other than his son Ben. Corny! Tom awakens from anesthesia at the exact moment that his flashbacks bring us up to the present moment. Corny! Reunions are a skosh too touching, and musical cues a skosh too moving. It's as if the writers don't quite trust that the inherent drama of the situation will entertain anyone. Which is ridiculous because: alien invasion! Earth destroyed! Children kidnapped! No hot running water!
It really is a shame because these situations do have drama, and they are largely well-played. The world of Falling Skies is a world where everyone has post-traumatic stress, and the heightened emotions of such a world do not need clichéd musical cues to deliver the goods.
Our first two hours this year are mercifully free of inspiring speeches, self-righteous prayer, and extended rumination on the Meaning of It All. Instead, there was some very strong television and exciting science fiction adventure, including some engineering trickery and Tom's journey through other parts of the U.S., which helped create real perspective on how far-reaching the war actually is, as well as a creepy alien parasite.
Creepy alien parasite! On the same day I saw Prometheus! UGH.
The creepy alien parasite (without spoiling anything) encapsulates much of what is excellent and also what is weak about Falling Skies. On the one hand: Creepy alien parasite! That is alarming. It's a shivery, oogy journey into science fiction that makes the world of the show as dark and "other" as it needs to be. On the weak side, it is simply not taken seriously enough. The 2nd Mass has both career soldiers and civilian survivors, but the civilians simply refuse to live as though, you know, there’s an alien invasion. There are always too few guards and too little fear.
Any post-apocalyptic entertainment works by showing us how much and how little we've changed, how hard the new life is and how traumatic the loss. It awakens us to what we have, stirs our fears of what we could lose, and plunges us into a fight for survival. This is true not just of Falling Skies but of The Walking Dead, Battlestar Galactica, or any number of others. When these shows succeed, they rouse all these intense feelings. When they fail, they make us feel like the end of the world is a lot like any other television show.
Deborah Lipp is the co-owner of Basket of Kisses, whose motto is "smart discussion about smart television." She is the author of six books, including "The Ultimate James Bond Fan Book."