With "Fringe" recently arriving at the end of its run, and no other networks I can think of airing a pure sci-fi show (other than upcoming 2013 debuts), perhaps "Falling Skies" will start to take up a larger piece of the pop-culture consciousness. Although the first season premiere was apparently the highest-rated cable television debut of 2011, and the series is executive produced by none other than Steven Spielberg, it feels like this alien invasion show is more of a cult success than a mainstream one, slipping beneath the collective TV radar. Then again, maybe that's just because, for a show that could easily stumble into tired dramatics, silliness, and a lack of scope, "Falling Skies" pretty much hits its mark across the board, delivering 10 unexpectedly compelling hours of extra-terrestrial warfare.
I was not one of the people who helped the Season One premiere, finale, or any of the episodes in between score high ratings for TNT, but it was surprisingly easy to jump right into the story of former Boston history teacher Tom Weaver (Noah Wyle) and the 2nd Mass, a group of rebels trekking across the country, trying to take down the creatures they refer to as Skitters -- crab-like, killer aliens who try and kidnap teens and children in order to enslave them with "harnesses" that attach themselves to the spine. At the end of Season One, Tom stepped onto an alien spaceship, lured in by the promise that doing so would help stop his son Ben (Connor Jessup), formerly harnessed, from transforming or turning in some way. This second season picks up three months later. Tom has escaped the alien ship, but is unsure of what might've been done to him while he was on board. Ben still has bolts in his neck from the harness, but angrily and pointedly takes out any and every Skitter he can. Meanwhile, Dan Weaver (Will Patton) is in charge of the Second Mass, honing his men into a real army.
All of the appeal of "Falling Skies" is surprisingly simple. For one thing, the show has an excellent cast. Wyle is a perfect everyman, convincing as both a teacher and a leader. He pairs perfectly with Patton, who is stern and sweet in equal measure. Seeing as Patton has been sorely underutilized as a fine character actor since Armageddon 14 years ago, it's great to watch him dive into a fun military leader like Dan. Moon Bloodgood's character, Dr. Anne Glass, is an excellent reminder to other TV writers that "strong female character" can mean more than just physical strength. Anne makes her mark with emotional resilience and medical knowledge -- not that brains are better than brawn, but some writers seem to think brawn is easier to do, so Dr. Glass is refreshing. The central roster is rounded out by Drew Roy as Tom's edgy but straight-arrow older son, Hal, and Colin Cunningham as Pope, the leader of a biker faction within the 2nd Mass, known as The Berserkers.
Although the show delves into fairly predictable storylines for this kind of story -- the promise of a functioning society in Charleston is a major plot point, tentative romance between Hal and his combat partner Maggie (Sarah Wilson), physical and psychological cracks in Dan's leadership, the death of loved ones, etc. -- the show succeeds by constantly moving forward, utilizing the familiar to spring forward into something unfamiliar, always working to change the current situation and dynamic of the characters rather than find ways to hold off until some plot point the audience knows and the characters don't can come into play. It helps that the show is an hour-long (roughly 45 minutes without the commercials), giving each episode more time to explore story threads. Even without the benefit of the first season, there were quite a few pure character moments that were fully effective, and within the first two episodes. Without giving too much away, the show speeds headlong into a twist in the battle that an inferior alien invasion show would've left for at least a third season, if not longer, and ends with even bigger developments for the upcoming third season.
As I worked my way through the season, I was poking around online and I saw some complaints that the first season focused more on talking than action. I can't compare the first season to the second, but this season offers plenty of action, packing what seems like at least one big battle into every episode. For a cable TV show, "Falling Skies" has some pretty good scope, clear direction, and some decent (if imperfect) special effects. The only area where the show cuts a noticeable corner is in rarely showing the "rest" of the 2nd Mass, focusing only on the 5-10 main characters (at one point, Dan remarks that there are 176 people in the 2nd Mass -- not a number that could be guessed from the way the show is shot). Genre TV is really rearing its head these days: visual effects are pretty cheap, sci-fi and fantasy are "in," and TV is becoming more prominent as people start avoiding theater prices. Anyone looking for an entertaining sci-fi action drama would be wise to flip over to TNT: "Falling Skies" is a smart, well-made little show that wisely knows how to play to its own strengths and weaknesses.
"Falling Skies": The Complete Second Season arrives in a standard eco-friendly Blu-Ray case, packed inside a foil-finish slipcover. The art is "Generic Promo 101" -- the large ensemble cast walking toward the camera. The back of the slipcover offers a synopsis of the show and a list of the extras, while the rear art on the case has an episode list. For some reason, there is also a booklet inside the case with the exact same information, word for word, as well as a collectible trading card with some Dark Horse "Falling Skies" artwork on it, and a flyer with a code for an UltraViolet digital copy.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.78:1 1080p AVC, "Falling Skies" is strong but not perfect on Blu-Ray. Don't worry -- this always looks like a high-definition transfer thanks to excellent fine detail in each and every shot throughout this season's ten episodes, down to the tiniest hairs and fabric textures. Colors also look very good, with the show leaning a little less toward the boring color-drained palette that so many dystopian films and TV shows go for. The one area where the transfer leaves something to be desired is contrast -- the show is shot on digital, and the result is noisy grain and gray-as-black, which flattens the show's constant night photography. Still, no instances of banding or artifacting that I was able to notice -- the transfer looks great about 50% of the time, and very good at all other times.
On the other hand, the show's Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack is fantastic, offering all the bombast and directionality one would expect from a blockbuster feature action movie. As I mentioned above, I saw some complaints about the lack of action in the first season. Well, this second season opens with action and keeps up the pace episode after episode. Gunfire close and far whizzes by across the soundscape from front to back. Rocket launchers blast their payload from the foreground to the background. The soundtrack soars, with great dynamic range. And, of course, the sound of a whole crowd of Skitters clacking across debris and buildings toward the viewer is a creepy-crawling audio experience that just might give the viewer nightmares. There are some minor details that reveal "Falling Skies" as blockbuster TV and not a major motion picture, but the soundtrack isn't one of them. A French Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing, and French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Thai subtitles are also included.
Special features are spread across both discs.
"One Page at a Time: Writing the Scond American Revolution" (20:49, HD) is the general making-of featurette, covering the whole season. The main focus is on the creative challenge of deciding where to go from the end of Season 1, and how each of the primary characters have begun to evolve, especially the character of Ben. As a making-of, it's a little average, but it's definitely not promotional -- it covers the entire season, all the way to the end. "The Fans' Perspective: Touring the Set of 'Falling Skies'" (8:59, HD) is a fun little extra with, yes, fans touring the set. It's fun to see both the enthusiasm and diversity of the people who enjoy the show -- the contest winners appear to have come from all over the world. Both the fans and the cast are interviewed, and it's fun to hear from both.
The rest of the video extras are more promotional in nature -- they were probably extra content on the "Falling Skies" website. "Terry O'Quinn is Manchester" (1:46, HD) promotes the "Lost" star as the newest addition to the cast. "Creating the Crawlies" (1:12, HD) glances at one of the new monsters the 2nd Mass faces in the new season. "Designing the Spaceship" (1:23, HD) digs into the look of the spaceship that Tom stepped onto at the end of Season 1, showing off some concept art and explaining some of the alien technology. "Team Skitter" (2:48, HD) spends some time with the performers and puppeteers who bring the Skitters to life, peeking into the technology and the logistics of playing one of the creatures. Video extras conclude with an animated trailer (1:13, HD), illustrated by the team at Dark Horse Comics. Although the menu makes it out to be a trailer for Season 2, it seems to be more of a trailer for a comic book that takes place between the two seasons.
One audio commentary is included on Disc 1, on the episode "Worlds Apart", featuring Noah Wyle, co-executive producer / director Greg Beeman, and writer Mark Verheiden. With the basics covered by the making-of featurette, the trio are more screen-specific on this track, focusing more on the day-to-day, shot-to-shot, and episode-specific challenges of what's happening on-screen rather than their overall goal for the season. The track is dominated by Beeman and Verheiden, with Wyle chiming in with jokes and on-set memories from time to time.
There are fewer video extras on the second disc, but more featurettes are included. "The Skitter Evolution" (9:47, HD) is a peek inside the show's switch from all-CG Skitters in the first season to puppet Skitters for the majority of the second season, as well as some miscellaneous make-up and prosthetic effects. There's plenty of test footage and behind-the-scenes info in this little piece, but it's a bit disjointed, leaping from subject to subject under the umbrella of Skitter effects. The biggest disc 2 extra is an episode of the "Falling Skies" web show "2nd Watch with Wil Wheaton", which focuses on the season finale (30:58, HD), and features Aubuchon, and cast members Wyle, Bloodgood, Jessup, Knight, Gabriel, Roy, and Carter. This extra is pretty self-explanatory -- I expect fans already know what the show is, and if not, the title is pretty self-explanatory -- so I have to admit I skipped this one (I'm really not a fan of Wil Wheaton). Video extras for the set conclude with a Season 3 preview (2:20, HD). Obviously, this featurette doesn't give any of the new season's surprises away -- it's a real tease -- but it hints at a western vibe.
Three more audio commentaries are included on Disc 2, on the episodes "Homecoming" (Wyle, Beeman, Aubuchon), "Molon Labe" (Wyle, Aubuchon, writers Bradley Thompson and David Weddle), and "A More Perfect Union" (Wyle, Beeman, Aubuchon, Thompson, and Weddle).
Recommended. I didn't expect anything out of "Falling Skies" -- I'd seen the promos, but the show doesn't seem to be on genre fans' radars, and so I assumed it wasn't that great. Turns out it's just the opposite: it's got a great cast, strong writing, and impressive production values that make it an easy watch, even for those (like me) diving into the second season first. I'll be looking forward to tuning in next year to see how the third season shakes out.
Please check out my other DVDTalk DVD, Blu-Ray and theatrical reviews and/or follow me on Twitter.