TNT landed a hit last year with its sci-fi drama “Falling Skies.”
It was a risky move on the Atlanta-based network’s part, expanding beyond its more reliable cops-lawyers-doctors formula by tackling an alien invasion and how a group of Massachusetts survivors try to battle back. The gamble paid off. Ratings were strong, averaging more than 6 million viewers per original airing. Better yet, it skewed younger than the typical TNT show.
So the show returns Sunday, June 17, at 9 p.m. with momentum and a chance to deepen the journey for the viewers.
“I was genuinely surprised how well received it was,” said Noah Wyle, the former “ER” star who plays professor/alien fighter Tom Mason, in an interview last month. “To be honest, I wasn’t sure what we had at the end of the first season. I knew we had dedicated a lot of scenes to exposition. In a short season, you don’t have a lot of time to do storytelling. I was sort of excited people bought in.”
With season two, the show is now able to deepen its characters and expand on why the aliens are here. Sci-fi fans over the years have seen shows like this come and go. There were plenty of skeptics of “Falling Skies” before it debuted. “They’ve been jilted and betrayed before,” he said.
Wyle said sci-fi shows work when they can operate on parallel tracks. First, you have to care about the characters and their internal conflicts. Then you have to enrich the mythology to the satisfaction of the fanboys. “Lost” was able to do it fairly successfuly over time. “Heroes”? Not so much. We’ll see how “Falling Skies” does on that front.
One thing you’ll notice: more night shots. “The show works better at night,” he said. “Sometimes shooting in broad daylight dissipates tension. It feels more claustrophobic at night.” There will be more movement this season as the team moves out of Massachusetts, seeking safer climes.
“An increased budget allowed us to put a little more vitality into the show,” Wyle said.
There was a lot of criticism last season when his character decided to enter an alien ship, possibly to his death, as season one concluded. “His kids are his Achilles Heel,” Wyle said. “Teased with the possibility his son Ben may still be in danger. If he comes on board, he may be able to talk his way out of it or sacrifice himself in his stead.”
Ben (Connor Jessup) season one had been captured by the aliens, who had given him a harness fused into his spine and turned him into a slave. When the Massachusetts fighter group got him back to base, they were able to take the bulk of the harness off – but elements of the harness remain in his back. As a result, he is changing. Though he clearly has a desire to wreak revenge on the aliens, it’s unclear what influence they continue to have on him.
And since Wyle is the lead of the show, we know he isn’t going to die on the ship. And it’s not a spoiler to say he gets out alive and that his negotiations with the alien leader do not go well. Yet for reasons that are still unclear based on the first few episodes, when Tom leaves the ship, the aliens allow him to live.
Tom returns to the camp, but some members are suspicious. Is he now a sleeper cell? He doesn’t even trust himself. But he knows he has to become more militaristic and hard-edged to fight the aliens.
Another interesting plot point he teases: the aliens are not united themselves, that some appear to be doing things against their own will. There’s a rift, a possible rebellion group sympathetic to humans.
While most of the human fighters seem to be good, moral people, the most notable character is naturally the bad guy Pope (Colin Cunningham), who happens to be very good at killing “skitters,” a nickname for the aliens.
“It’s good to have a character like him who is morally ambiguous,” Wyle said. “I remember trying to explain to my son a few years ago that there are some good people who do bad things and bad people who do good things. Pope’s the perfect embodiment of that.”
Watch episode three for a fun confrontation between Pope and Tom.
Wyle himself was recently arrested for protesting cuts in Medicaid for a group called ADAPT. “They are a very small group. I wanted to help them get publicity and it worked,” he said. “It’s a really significant issue.”
And I had to ask him about an anecdote in former NBC president Warren Littlefield’s book “Top of the Rock,” which reviews the heyday of the 1990s on NBC. In it, Wyle reveals amnesia when it comes to a former “ER” guest star Rebecca DeMornay. To her face years later, he said he didn’t remember working with her, yet they had a multi-episode “ER” story arc, which included a sex scene. She called him an a-hole. He admits his memory failed him badly.
“I didn’t think he’d put that in the book!” Wyle said.
9 p.m. Sundays, TNT, starting June 17.
By Rodney Ho, Radio & TV Talk