The hardest thing in developing a TV show, especially a heavily narrative-based one like "Falling Skies", has to be the balance. While the story must constantly grow, develop, and surprise, there should also be a tonal or stylistic consistency, so that fans never suddenly feel like they're watching a different show. Conversely, the characters have that balance flipped, in that their motivations and instincts should generally remain the same, while also leaving some room for the characters to grow, develop, and surprise the viewer. The second season of the show walked a pretty perfect tightrope, constantly throwing new challenges and developments in what the 2nd Mass knew about their alien attackers, while finding ways to test and reaffirm the way Tom Mason (Noah Wyle) and his family face each of these twists. Comparatively, Season Three is a letdown, falling too far to one side for most of the season.
Several months after the residents of Charlestown first encountered a new alien race, great progress has been made in the war. The mysterious masked visitor the group meets at the end of Season 3 is Cochise (Doug Jones), a member of the Volm, who have suffered their own losses at the hands of the "Skitters", otherwise known as the Espheni. With the help of Cochise, the human forces have not only managed to hold back the Espheni's attempts to wipe out the resistance, but even send them scrambling for new techniques and strategies as their resources dwindle. For the first time in two years, Tom is confident that the humans are beginning to win, even as others wonder what the Volm plan for the human race should the Espheni be defeated. The one thorn in Tom's side is the presence of a mole among their ranks, one who consistently leaks their plans of attack to the Espheni and eventually turns to outright murder, killing key people in Charleston right under everyone's noses.
On the plus side, the few new characters introduced in this season make for wonderful additions to the ensemble dynamic. Gloria Reuben plays Marina Peralta, Tom's assistant as President of Charleston. She's an uncompromising realist, which can sound harsh but frequently comes in handy when it comes to tough decisions or decisive action. Reuben finds a balance between ruthlessness and sensitivity that is very compelling, especially when it comes to her obvious but unfulfilled romantic interest in Captain Dan Weaver (Will Patton). She also leads Tom to Dr. Roger Kadar (Robert Sean Leonard), a scientist working deep in the bowels of Charleston in order to keep the electricity running. His agoraphobia is easily defeated, but his moments of deep sensitivity and understanding fascinating. Most importantly, there's Cochise himself. The relationship between Tom and Cochise becomes as comforting -- perhaps even moreso, this season -- as the one between Tom and Dan, thanks to Jones' supernatural ability to project emotion even through an inch of rubber and clipped, matter-of-fact dialogue.
Unfortunately, Season 3 shifts almost entirely toward character work and away from story developments, which emphasizes the show's shortcomings. Fairly predictable conflicts and resolutions arise, such as the ongoing rivalry between Tom and Pope (Colin Cunningham), explored to little effect in "Search and Recover", which finds the two men stranded in the woods together. Even more irritating is the romantic rivalry that arises between Espheni overlord Karen (Jessy Schram) and Margaret (Sarah Carter) over Hal Weaver (Drew Roy), whose mind has been partially captured by one of Karen's eye bugs. It would be one thing if their rivalry stemmed from the simple fact that they're on opposite sides of a war, or if Schram played her half of the character with a little more emotional earnestness (the idea appears to be that she genuinely loves Hal, but it all feels like empty manipulation), but it's nothing more than an irritating excuse to pit women against each other out of jealousy.
The season also struggles to find time for the previous season's camaraderie with all that has to occur in these ten episodes. As previously mentioned, Tom and Dan spend almost the entire season apart from each other, as do Tom and Dr. Anne Glass (Moon Bloodgood), who struggles to understand unusual things about her newborn daughter. The relationship between Tom's other son, Ben (Connor Jessup) and Deni (Megan Danso) is significant in the first half of the season, but not the second, and in fact Ben himself is suddenly shifted into a supporting character role after being so important last year. Not every character can be important in every episode, especially with so many characters for the writers to juggle, but it feels like Pope and his cronies get an unusually high amount of screen time for how little they contribute to the overall story.
Still, the season's not a wash. The best episode of the season, "Strange Brew", gives the cast and crew a chance to do something significantly different than any other episode, as the Espheni try to wring military secrets from Tom -- to say more would be a spoiler, but it's great fun. "Badlands" is another highlight, focusing on the character of Crazy Lee (Luciana Carro), who is wounded in an accident. Her reaction to the incident has a huge impact on Matt (Maxim Knight), Tom's youngest son. Carro gives a subtle, affecting performance that resonates throughout the season. In general, starting with "Strange Brew", the series starts to feel more dramatically motivated, offering meatier plot developments and ideas to chew on. It's more than a late start, occurring well past the season's halfway mark, but it's an encouraging sign for the series fourth season, which will have two more episodes to work with in trying to regain that crucial sense of balance.
"Falling Skies": The Complete Third Season arrives as a 2-disc Blu-Ray set in a standard Viva Elite Blu-Ray case, packed inside a glossy, foil slipcover. As with the other two seasons, TNT and Warner Bros. simply recycle promotional art, depicting a very casual-looking cast in front of one of the enemy's robots. On the back of the case once the slip is removed, there is a short episode listing, and a sheet with the UltraViolet Digital Copy code is tucked inside the case.
The Video and Audio
Much like the show's second season, this 1.78:1 1080p AVC presentation is generally strong, if some of the positives (much like the season as a whole) have been whittled away. The show, which looked more colorful last year, has shifted toward the more boring color-drained palette of so many sci-fi movies and TV shows (dear filmmakers: please stop this entirely), and thus, the picture offers less pop with the exception of the occasional brightly-lit daytime sequence, or the season's wild eighth episode. Contrast is also an issue, with dark clothes occasionally disappearing against night sky in certain scenes. On the upside, fine detail is always excellent, and I detected no instances of banding or artifacting.
Previous releases offered Dolby TrueHD, but this third season gets a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track instead. Companies aside, I can't say I noticed much of a difference in the surround capabilities of this HD audio stream, which offers the same impressive blend of sci-fi squeals and squelches, gunfire, explosions, music, and dialogue as the previous season. The show is mixed almost as well as a movie, even when there are occasionally unnaturally silent backdrops for quiet dialogue scenes. Since the Second Mass is no longer on the road, there's less action than there was the previous season, but the action on display here is bigger and bolder, allowing for more bass and impact. The disc also offers a wild array of subtitles on each episode, including English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing, Latin Spanish, French, Finnish, Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish.
All extras on the set are presented in HD.
Disc 1's video extras consist exclusively of episodes of the recap and discussion show "Second Watch" with Wil Wheaton (15:01, 14:08, 12:35, and 9:43), guest-starring most of the principal cast (including Wyle, Bloodgood, Roy, Schram, and Knight), as well as Greg Beeman and Remi Aubuchon. I still don't like Wil Wheaton, so I must again admit I had no interest in sitting through these programs, but I'm sure fans who do like Wheaton are already plenty familiar with the show and its qualities. These episodes cover "On Thin Ice", "Badlands", "At All Costs", and "Search and Recover."
Further "Second Watch" content is included on the second disc, for all five episodes: "Be Silent and Come Out" (14:04), "The Pickett Line" (12:49), "Strange Brew" (16:39), "Journey to Xilbaba" (15:32), "Brazil" (15:12). Not sure why only one of the series' ten episodes was not covered, but I suppose it doesn't matter to me.
Two further featurettes are included to round out the set. "Warrior Poet: Creating the Character and Emotion of Cochise" (19:37) examines the development (both dramatic and technical) of the series' friendly alien character, played by everyone's favorite almost unrecognizable character actor, Doug Jones. The character discussion is all fairly standard, but the technical insight is really fascinating, pointing out a blend of CG and prosthetic effects that I hardly detected. "Karen: The Overlord Next Door" (21:23) dives into Jessy Schram's character, and how the writers and producers helped guide her journey. This featurette is more frustrating than informative, helping to identify all the reasons the character of Karen is irritating rather than compelling. The crew seem to have their heads screwed on right, but somewhere between conceptualization and execution, the character goes awry.
I was unexpectedly impressed by "Falling Skies" Season Two, but underwhelmed by Season Three. What was so even-keeled last season feels overstuffed and lacking in focus this year, even though there are some highlights to speak of. The extras package is also on the downturn this year, with recaps fans have probably already seen making up most of the supplements. Rent it.
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