I don't ask for much. Well, I do, but for the sake of argument, let's pretend I'm a woman of simple needs. When it comes to television, sure, give me the requisite daily allowance of tortured characters and existential dilemmas; give me exceptional cinematography and thoughtfully rendered moral dilemmas. Give me all the good stuff that I'm supposed to want and that I do truly enjoy.
But can we also get some damn aliens up in here?
You know, aliens bent on World Destruction? Can a girl get some waving tentacles and bloody scenes of rebellion against our would-be interstellar conquerers, preferably without the whole thing collapsing under the weight of an excess of scaly ponderousness? Is that asking too much?
Apparently it was during the sluggish first season of "Falling Skies," which started out strong and then, like an insect overlord running out of fuel made from the flesh of blameless humans, it petered out. Viewers had to wade through a lot of scenes of mostly bland people standing around and talking about their problems (when they weren't trading mawkish lines of dialogue, that is). A character named Lourdes personified everything that was wrong with the show; she was quite literally the Voice of Hope and Sentiment, and I began to dread her arrival on screen (and secretly hope for a nuke dropped from orbit when she did).
As the season dragged on and the danger and tension leached away, "Falling Skies" provided an object lesson in what invasion-oriented sci-fi stories -- or zombie stories, for that matter -- should try to avoid. Sure, topical allegories and pointed parallels to present-day issues are fine, well and good, but the first order of business should be making us realize just how easy it would be to be blasted by death rays (or eaten by flesh-munchers, etc). Like the second season of "The Walking Dead" (or any number of failed sci-fi dramas on the broadcast networks), the first season of "Falling Skies" became too static and predictable, and even as the shows struggled to fill in the characters' personalities, I sat there losing faith in their ingenuity and intelligence.
What happiness I felt, then, when I watched the much-improved second season of "Falling Skies," which premieres on Sunday, June 17 at 9 p.m. ET on TNT. Season 2 is a different animal, a much leaner and meaner machine that allows sentiment to be present but unexpressed and depicts a darker world in which innocence is a luxury that no one can truly afford.
And, unlike what happened last year, there's no dropoff after the two-hour season premiere; the suspense actually builds in all the ways it's supposed to from the crisp Season 2 opener onward, and one of the creepiest scenes in the history of the show occurs in the fourth hour. It makes me genuinely happy to report that the sequence is disturbing in all the right ways.
All in all, the new season of "Falling Skies" gets the basics right. The characters still aren't tremendously complex -- though Noah Wyle's sturdy presence and his character's innate decency anchors the whole affair nicely -- but the pace is good, mysteries embedded along the way add tension to the proceedings, battles come at well-spaced intervals, and the rag-tag band of survivors aren't pinned down in one location for a frustratingly long time. (At one point in Season 1, I was thinking of starting a petition to free Moon Bloodgood's doctor character from the survivors' improvised clinic. It's not much of an overstatement to claim that the woman saw three seconds of daylight in the whole first season.)
Several people have asked me on Twitter if they should go back and watch the second half of Season 1, and I strongly urge you not to and to just dive in to Season 2. Even if you haven't seen the first season at all, it's easy to pick up on where things left off: There was an alien invasion; a band of fighters called the 2nd Mass attempted to resist; former history professor Tom Mason (Wyle), the father of three sons (one of whom was temporarily captured and altered by the aliens), ended the season by going aboard a mothership. That's Season 1 in a nutshell, plus or minus a grungy biker named Pope (the always entertaining Colin Cunningham), who somehow attached himself and his band of "Berserkers" to the much more uptight 2nd Mass.
What comes through most in the first four episodes of "Falling Skies" is a sense of clean and clear momentum; each hour is regularly punctuated with missions, there are clear delineations of understandable conflicts among different factions of survivors, and, most notably, the leaders don't do dumb, Rick Grimes-ish things that make me want to punch a wall (even Lourdes has been greatly toned down and actually seems like a human, not a wind-up toy you'd buy at a Hallmark store). It's generally easier to root for the 2nd Mass this time around, even if I find it a tad hard to believe that this many people would willingly follow a military chain of command when the end of the world had produced such chaos and destruction.
But Steven Spielberg is one of the executive producers on this project, thus "Falling Skies" operates on the inherent belief that there is good among these people and, despite some hitches here and there, those finer qualities are bound to rise to the surface eventually. But all of that is much less overt and less frequently telegraphed this season, which is very much to the good. Even better news is that trust is an issue, even for Wyle's noble Tom Mason. His fellow survivors wonder what the hell happened to him aboard that mothership, and even he isn't quite sure if the brain of his middle son, the sullen and newly bloodthirsty Ben, was permanently scrambled by the alien overlords during his period of captivity. (Apparently some critics aren't fans of the Ben arc, but I find all three of Mason's sons tolerable and even likable on occasion, which is astonishing, given television's penchant for depicting teen boys as unendurable jackasses.)
"Falling Skies" isn't "Battlestar Galactica" (even though some of that show's writers were recruited for duty this season, and you can tell from the snappy economy of the dialogue and the verve of the military plots). The "Falling Skies" characters still aren't nearly as interesting as Adama, Roslin, Baltar and Starbuck, but there's a reassuring feeling that "Falling Skies" knows its business this season, and that is to kick some alien ass and take some tentative steps toward rebuilding the shattered remnants of society. Perhaps the best thing I can say about the 2nd Mass is that it is literally on the move; the days of the characters retreating to their chosen hidey-hole to avoid danger are pretty much over.
Like all good alien dramas, the show begins to expand a little on some of the logistical and philosophical questions that Season 1 introduced: What is the agenda of the aliens? How are the fighter-drone "skitters" different from the mechanized robots and tall, willowy creatures that appear to command Earth operations? What do these damn tentacle-wavers want and why do they want it? The most welcome "BSG" parallel comes in the form of the question that so much great sci-fi asks: Am I so very different from The Other?
If there's one mild frustration with the season, it's that some plot points centered on Tom's adventures in the mothership and a piece of alien tech get dropped fairly soon after the season premiere, but perhaps those storylines will be picked up later in the season. In any event, a la the Cylons, these slimy aliens appear to have a plan.
So do the humans. It's a crazy shot in the dark, but, in true sci-fi tradition, it just might work.
Ryan McGee and I talked about "Falling Skies" in this week's Talking TV podcast, and the first few minutes of the new season are below.
Follow Maureen Ryan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/moryan