It used to be that summer was a time for reruns and mediocre miniseries, but those days have long passed now that cable channels like TNT have discovered that June and July provide the perfect opportunity to bring out their biggest guns and steal audience share from the networks. And a very big gun TNT has indeed with the Steven Spielberg-produced alien-invasion show, Falling Skies.
The most-watched cable launch of the year, this old-school, straightforward series (there's no mystery about the invaders or their intentions-they're bad and they want to enslave and/or slaughter us) spares no expense in special effects. The skitters, as the humans call the aliens, and the mechs, their laser shooting, human-tracking weapons, are big-screen worthy in their frightening detail. The high-tension action scenes display much tighter editing than is often seen on television, with realistic violence inappropriate for young and sensitive viewers. What really makes the show work, however, is human drama.
The show opens with a band of survivors in Boston six months after the invaders have conquered every nation on Earth. Part of a rag-tag remnant of resistance forces, they move from place to place, hiding out from the aliens, raiding abandoned grocery stores, and making plans to attack the skitters and rescue their lost children, who have been "harnessed" for slave labor.
American-history professor-turned-army-captain Tom Mason (ER's Noah Wyle) may not be the official leader of the group, but he's the one the civilians and lower-ranking officers look to for encouragement and strategy when things are at the worst. Once a mild-mannered husband and father, he lost his wife in the invasion and suddenly finds that if he has any hope of holding on to what remains of his family, he will have to draw upon the kind of fierceness and conviction he has only taught.
The subtle patriotism inherent in this setup makes it a timely launch for the Tea Party era. Tom references the American Revolution so often as a source of emulation and hope, those around him begin to roll their eyes and wonder if they should start wearing tricorne hats. The introductory narration in which a child explains that mankind's first instinct was to respond to the aliens' aggressiveness with tolerance and accommodation may also suggest that the show's storyline is building toward some timely motifs.
Unlike most post-apocalyptic sci-fi shows and movies, the characters in Falling Skies display the shell-shocked air one would expect of people living through a major upheaval in the social order. They don't seem blithely accepting of the new status quo; instead, they talk about the recent past and how strange it was that only months ago they insisted their teenagers wear bike helmets while now they expect them to carry automatic weapons.
It's too soon to tell what the overall themes and tone of Falling Skies will be, but for Christian viewers some of the dialogue in the two-hour season premiere sounds promising. "Biology is the study of the most miraculous gift that has ever been bestowed on us-life," a teacher tells the students in his makeshift mobile classroom, adding, "It's the study of the wonder, the beauty, and the mystery that is life itself. And to study it is to learn humility, and responsibility, and gratitude." It's a rare thought for a genre that more often treats science with a certain clinical atheism. The concept of gratitude and wonder is later underlined when one young girl explains to another that the invasion has only strengthened her faith and that she prays not to ask God to do things for her but "to ask God to show me what I can do for Him."
Though alien-invasion shows have not fared well on television as of late (NBC's The Event and ABC's V were both recently canceled), with its tremendous production quality and a seeming partiality for faith and patriotism, TNT may succeed where the big boys failed.