FALLING SKIES 1.01 ‘Live And Learn’

Tom Mason and his sons try to survive in the aftermath of a brutal alien invasion.

Blair Marnellby Blair Marnell

Episode Title: "Live And Learn"

Writer: Robert Rodat
 
Director: Carl Franklin

Premise:

Shortly after an alien invasion wipes out all of the armies and major cities on Earth, humanity struggles to survive while trying to find some way to reclaim their world.

 

This is an advance look at the "Falling Skies" pilot. Spoilers are going to be relatively minor, but if you want to go in without knowing what's coming up, just stroll down to the Breakdown section or wait until Sunday!

 

Story:

Through the crayon drawings of eight year old Matt Mason (Maxim Knight) and other young children, we see how the aliens invaded Earth, wiped out the armies, neutralized most modern technology and occupied Earth's major cities. Matt also relates how he lost his mother early in the invasion as well as his older brother Ben (Connor Jessup), who may have been captured by the aliens. Anne Glass (Moon Bloodgood) tries to comfort Matt by pointing out that he still has his father, Tom Mason (Noah Wyle) and Matt's oldest brother, Hal (Drew Roy). But Matt is so used to the constant death and destruction that they he doesn't seem phased by the idea that Tom and Hal may not make it back alive.

Inside the city at night, Tom and Hal try to escape with their scavenged food and their comrades, only to loose both in the process of a surprise attack by the "Skitters" and the alien mechs. Tom actually forces Hal to hide as a Skitter kills out one of their friends. Tom then drags Hal to the rendezvous point with the surviving members of the raiding party and they go back to the camp empty handed. Once there, Tom encounters Anne and his son Matt, before being summoned to a meeting of the local resistance leaders. The commander informs Tom and the rest of the leaders that they are breaking into smaller groups to evade detection.

And much to Tom's surprise, he is named the new second-in-command of the 2ND Mass, under Weaver (Will Patton), a cynical soldier who would rather fight the aliens than retreat with 200 civilians in tow. Before Tom's group of refugees moves out, his son Matt complains about missing his birthday due to the chaos and Tom reassures him that they will mark the occasion somehow. But Hal chides his younger brother for even bringing it up. As they march, Tom bonds with Annie and he expresses his hope that in the future, Earth will belong to humanity again. Although the march proceeds without any major problems, Tom and Weaver realize that they simply don't have enough food to feed everyone.

While Weaver seems ready to abandon the civilians, Tom volunteers to lead a raid with Hal, another scout named Karen (Jessy Schram) and a handful of soldiers, including his right hand man, Dai (Peter Shinkoda). When Hal is sent ahead to get the lay of the land, he spots his brother Ben being controlled by an alien harness as he is marched along with other captive children who are accompanied by several armored alien mechs. Hal attempts to get Tom to join him on a dangerous mission to save Ben and he almost leaves to do it himself when Tom insists that they have to finish their original mission first. In fact, Tom practically has to jump on Hal to keep him from leaving and he promises that they will both recover Ben together.

Tom and his team arrive at a food distribution center and they begin loading up their truck. It goes smoothly until they encounter a lone Skitter and one alien mech. Despite being largely outgunned, Tom and Dai manage to kill and neutralize both enemies before watching the alien die at their feet. The next day, they reunite with the 2ND Mass with enough food to last a few days. Tom also marches over to Weaver with Hal and promises that after they secure a nearby armory, he and his son will go find Ben. Afterwards, Tom, Hal and Anne give Matt the birthday he wanted… and an unexpected gift that seems to briefly lift the spirits of the entire camp. But soon enough, Tom and Weaver give the order to march on so they can all survive for at least another day.

Breakdown:

From the trailers and previews, I had pretty high expectations for "Falling Skies." And for the most part, those expectations were met.

I've heard "Falling Skies" described as "The Walking Dead' with aliens, but it really is its own thing. And the script for the pilot is very tightly written. Director Carl Franklin also gives it a  cinematic quality through well shot action sequences and some very effective camera views of the occupied city. To be sure, the special effects team is also largely responsible for those visuals. But the entire episode had a gritty look that felt more real than ABC's version of "V." This is an alien invasion story that you can actually believe in. And frankly, it's a lot closer to the show that I always wanted "V" to be.

I think Noah Wyle's been off of series television for so long that a lot of us forgot just how good he was on "ER." In "Falling Skies," Wyle inhabits Tom Mason so completely that you forget that you're watching the guy who used to be Dr. Carter. I think the key to Wyle's performance is that he never overplays the part. The one time that Tom gets really intense is when he's practically forcing his oldest son to back down from a suicide mission to find his missing brother. What struck me most about that scene was how sincere Wyle's emotions seemed to be. It could have been a cheesy moment in the hands of another actor, but instead it's one of Tom's best character beats in the episode.

There's another great moment early in the episode when Tom finds a discarded pile of books and picks up two: "A Tale of Two Cities" and "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea." Watching Tom decide which book to take was unexpectedly entertaining because he wasn't just deciding about content, it was about what he could carry, It's a little touch that helps make the larger sweeping story seem more relatable. And of course, because Tom's a former history professor, he gets to be the one to remind the audience that occupied people throughout history have overthrown larger armies by causing them so much trouble that they leave in response.

But with the way that the aliens are presented in this show, it's kind of hard to believe that humanity has any hope at all. Despite what Weaver and even Tom want to believe, the war is basically over at this point and even the survival of humanity is in question. The show presents the aliens as a largely intractable opponent, but they aren't invincible. So there's still some hope, but a complete victory over the aliens seems like a pipe dream.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and predict that Dai is going to be one of the breakout characters of this show. Everyone loves a bad ass and he gets the best alien kills. One of the machine gun wielding kids named Jimmy also has some potential, largely because he seems older than the 13 year old boy that he's supposed to be. It's a really good turn by the young actor, Dylan Authors.

The weak link in the cast so far appears to Tom's son, Matt. I'm not picking on Maxim Knight, but the writing for his character was noticeably lacking compared to some of the others. And the ending with Matt's impromptu birthday and the inspiration it brought the 2ND Mass was a little too Steven Spielberg for me. The show does need some lighter moments of hope to balance the darker aspects, but that was really pushing it towards the Hallmark Hall of Fame for a few minutes.

So far, "Falling Skies" is living up to its hype as the best new series of the summer. If it can keep up this level of quality, it may be one of the best new shows of the year, period.

Crave Online Rating: 9 out of 10.