Lunchtable TV Talk: Falling Skies

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I am combing through a long list of TV I have watched … a lot of it. It should not have, but it did stun me when I realized I had seen 30 of 35 of the best shows of 2015 (according to Vox). The Vox list was a longer version of other recently published 2015 reviews, most of which cite similar lists. I think it’s easy to forget some of the really good stuff that happened earlier in the year (like Better Call Saul – it was not perfect but it was so much better than a lot of stuff on TV) because we are so spoiled by a constant stream of high quality programming. It is easy to leave out stuff that felt new and exciting, felt groundbreaking, or really just felt like something powerful. Because there is just too much of the stuff.

With that in mind, I wanted to say just one or two words about Falling Skies, which ended this year without much fanfare. It was never going to make anyone’s top-ten or even top-35 shows. It was over the top and too much for most of its run – but it had its moments. It went too far and squandered its potential most of the time. Some of the storylines about infighting among humans were just… overwrought and took away from the bigger stories, which might have been explored with better handling had there not been so much wasted time. After all, we are sometimes brought down by the enemy within or near – pettiness, power struggles, etc. – and external enemies can just stand on the sidelines and watch us tear ourselves and each other apart.

I can’t say, even at the end, that things became particularly clear. What was the point of this show? It was a less well-executed version of The Walking Dead – a group of people running, hiding and fighting an enemy greater than itself. Sure, in The Walking Dead, it’s an enemy that is greater only in number. In Falling Skies, the enemy is extraterrestrial invaders with exponentially superior firepower who destroy almost everything except some kind of fighting spirit in the humans who remain. (There was way too much thinly veiled American-style patriotism here, with the protagonist being a former history professor who cites tales of Revolutionary War “heroes” and battles while backed up by a few actual military personnel, who have together formed a new militia, making the whole show feel a bit like a post-apocalyptic Revolutionary War re-enactment. I suppose this was by design, but it felt heavy-handed at best and inauthentic at worst.)

What did the show get right? Questions of suspicion and trust. Who do you trust when your back is against the wall, when survival is at stake? In this case, aliens invade. But when a different group of aliens arrives and offers to help, claiming that the original invaders are a shared enemy, do you cautiously accept their help and choose to trust them or reject all outsiders, anyone not like you, because it is more likely to be a trap? These kinds of themes are timely in an era where American presidential candidates want to do things like create databases of Muslims in America and shut out all new Muslim entrants?! Fundamentally, who is the outsider, and by what definition or authority is it okay to suspect everyone for the heinous actions of a few?

The show, improbably, shows the power of the collective. When a group of people band together in solidarity for a single purpose, they can achieve the impossible. The odds were against them. But the group, for the most part, survived. But the show also reveals (much as we have seen in The Walking Dead) that survival is only part of the equation. It’s not going to happen without losses, and no one gets out unchanged.

Maybe they were able to pick it back up again, but in this case at least, the sky really was falling.

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