Falling Skies is a cautionary tale for good ideas, and terrible execution

You have Steven Spielberg behind the scenes, and you’re telling the story of an alien-human war on Earth. Seriously, Falling Skies, how could you mess up that pitch so terribly over the past five seasons?

On paper, the TNT sci-fi series looks like a sure-fire critical and commercial hit — but as anyone who has tuned in over the past few years can attest, it’s been far from it. The cast, led by Noah Wyle, Moon Bloodgood, Will Patton, Colin Cunningham and (mo-capped) Doug Jones, is an excellent assemblage of talent. They all have skill, and that’s shown immensely the past few seasons as they tried their best to sell some of the silliest plot contrivances ever conceived.

Looking back, it started off with a ton of promise. The premiere was a buzzy hit, watched by almost 6 million people in 2011. As far as quality goes, the first season was also arguably the best of the series, focusing on a ragtag team of resistance fighters six months into an alien invasion. It found this group, with Tom Mason’s fairly likable family at its center, going up against long odds and doing their best to win the battle of the day. 

Losing its heart

This is where Falling Skies had its heart, and that first season was akin to the first year of CBS’s cult hit Jericho. It told a relatively small story against a much larger canvas, and got you to truly invest in that mission across town to scrap motorcycle parts, or the nigh-impossible efforts to get an Espheni harness off Tom’s son Ben. In the grand scheme of an alien invasion, the stakes are relatively small, and the focus is on survival. These people aren’t the chosen ones to save the world — they’re just a disparate group thrown together by little more than circumstance. This is when the stories were the most interesting, and why the producers were so desperate to move beyond that period I’ll never understand. 

But all that changed in the season finale. Showrunner Mark Verheiden and producer Graham Yost wanted a jaw-dropping final scene, so they came up with the idea to have Tom board the Overlord’s ship, just as the episode faded to black. It was a shocking moment, to be sure — but there was no obvious place to go from there. Star Noah Wyle told io9 they essentially “wrote [themselves] into a corner,” while Season 2 showrunner Remi Aubuchon admitted that dangling plot thread was easily his biggest headache in taking over the driver’s seat. It made the everyman Tom a messianic figure, even if by accident, and he never shook that mantle over the next four seasons.


From there? All hell doesn’t break loose just yet, but the cracks become visible. Aubuchon does his best to make sense of the cliffhanger and focuses the second season on a journey to join a group of human survivors who have set up shop in Charleston. It’s a solid plot device, provides some unique political angles along the way and sets up a nice start to Season 3. Plus, Lost alum Terry O’Quinn has a supporting role as Tom’s former mentor (then is quickly killed off, of course).

Though the broad strokes sound all right, Aubuchon’s two years at the helm also saw the addition of all kinds of half-baked plot threads, from a half-hearted alien rebellion to the introduction of new alien races (which only served to complicate things and kill that “back against the wall” spirit the series thrived on), a half-alien baby (who ages at a rapid rate and has strange, barely explained powers) and new threats such as eye bugs (which, if the Espheni had any brains, they would deploy on all human freedom fighters and just be done with it).

Too much ambition, too little execution

It’s also at this point the show officially turns from a story of survival to a story of the 2nd Mass. becoming alien-killing world-beaters capable of repelling the alien assault. From super-weapons to alien-human alliances, the 2nd Mass. suddenly became much more than a ragtag team of freedom fighters. The evolution fits somewhat, narratively (since the Volm are helping out), but the larger scope comes at a price.  The wackier subplots start to act as filler for the bigger mythology episodes, and at 10 episodes (typically) per season, there should be no room for wheel-spinning. They seriously put almost every key character through some type of insane alien influence during the series’ run — all of which they almost always survive. If these aliens are so inept, how exactly did they manage to win this invasion in the first place?

By the time Battlestar Galactica alum David Eick took over for Seasons 4-5, he was piloting a ship careening toward ridiculousness — and did little to right the ship. Season 4 was an absolute mess, splitting time between an alien ghetto where many characters were being held hostage and an untouched paradise run by Tom’s (now-adult) half-alien baby. Oh, and the paradise is basically a Hitler Youth Camp aimed at brainwashing humans into thinking the aliens are great. Eick flirts with some interesting ideas here, but he’s trying to make a different show at this point. It’s not exactly Falling Skies, but trapped by the framework, it’s not entirely something else, either. It’s just a mess. All of that insanity finally gives way to a mission to literally send Tom  and his half-alien daughter Lexi to the moon in an effort to “unplug” the alien power source. Because, sure.

The merciful end

Despite the apparent suicide mission, Season 5 finds Tom back on Earth ... thanks to the help of some new aliens and a few more plot contrivances. With the fifth and final season set to wrap up this Sunday, it feels like Eick and the creative team were content to spin their wheels just long enough to set up a final assault against the Espheni forces. As for the nine episodes up to that point? They twist antihero Pope (one of the show’s better characters) into a bad guy fueled by vengeance and unceremoniously blow him up during a half-hearted attack on the 2nd Mass. The season also spends a few episodes dealing with a trumped-up court-martial against Tom at a military base, led by a commander who is so obviously under alien control you’re literally screaming at the TV by the time the “twist” is finally revealed.

When last we left the 2nd Mass. last week, they were facing an onslaught of alien Black Hornets (Stakes!) as they prepare for the final assault. The finale will almost certainly deliver on the action front, and if there’s one thing Falling Skies excels at, it’s envisioning a gorgeously gritty apocalypse.

But as the 2nd Mass. prepares for that one final fight, we can’t help but lament the show Falling Skies could’ve been. Hey, who knows? Heroes is getting a repreive to recapture its early glory. Maybe in five or six years, we'll be writing about Falling Skies: Reborn?

What do you think of Falling Skies? Have you enjoyed the ride, or was a great potential story wasted? Let us know in the comments! 

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