'Outcasts' (9PM ET Saturday, BBC America) deftly sketches a portrait of a settlement that humanity has created on another planet after leaving Earth, and 'Falling Skies' (9PM ET Sunday, TNT) also has a refreshingly basic premise: Aliens are here and they're trying to kill us. That'swhat I'm talking about.
But just as aliens tend to turn up where they're least wanted, problems invade each drama fairly early on.
Though both pilots are strong, it soon becomes clear that, despite some interesting ideas and the presence of good casts, neither 'Falling Skies' or 'Outcasts' is entirely clear on how to deploy those elements well.
'Falling Skies' is the higher-profile project, and it frankly falls further after its enjoyable two-hour pilot. The first half of the premiere was written by the show's creator, Robert Rodat ('Saving Private Ryan'), and the second half was penned by 'Justified' executive producer Graham Yost, a veteran of both 'Band of Brothers' and 'The Pacific.' Given these writers' experience with war stories, the post-apocalyptic 'Falling Skies' pilot unfolds with the economical, matter-of-fact momentum of a good combat film.
We see ragtag teams going on missions in which the odds are stacked against them; we meet alien foes who seems resourceful and intimidating; and we see a 13-year old kid casually shouldering a rifle, which tells us everything we need to know about how the war effort is going. There are solid performances from Noah Wyle as Tom Mason, a history professor-turned-military leader and Moon Bloodgood as Anne Glass, a doctor treating survivors, and Colin Cunningham is especially entertaining as John Pope, a wily resistance leader.
Cunningham alone is reason enough to keep watching this series, but in almost every other respect, 'Falling Skies' sags after its taut two-hour pilot. I lost count of the times I paused episodes to try to understand an inexplicable moment or to complain to my couchmate about a predictable development. There are some promising ideas and story lines here, but the pilot far outshone subsequent episodes in terms of quality and efficiency.
It's not as if every decision the characters make is silly, but too many inexplicable decisions are made by various survivors, and it's not hard to predict exactly how and why those decisions will go wrong. When characters do things because the plot requires them to rather than because those actions make sense to them and to us, eye-rolling frustration is inevitable.
Tonally, 'Falling Skies' is all over the place. I can understand why the resolutely mainstream TNT wouldn't want a sci-fi series that was as dark as 'Battlestar Galactica' could be, but the drama's "uplifting" scenes feel tacked-on and ultimately unnecessary. This is just my imagination at work, but as I watched, I kept picturing TNT executives telling the writers, "But there have to be some heartwarming moments! End the episodes on an uplifting note!"
Whether or not the executives are to blame, we get several clunky scenes like the ones in which a female medical student offers nuggets of astonishingly grating greeting-card wisdom (her name is Lourdes, but she may as well be called Mary Sue). Steven Spielberg, who is one of the drama's executive producers, is known for his tendency toward sentiment, but his movies are usually not guilty of the kind of sloppy schmaltz on display here.
It's not as if the show has to be cynical or pessimistic all the time, but its moments of "hope" tend to be transparently manipulative attempts to pull on our heartstrings. But the way to get viewers invested in the characters is to make them complex and interesting and to put them in stories that are exciting and unpredictable, as 'Lost' and 'Battlestar Galactica' did. Given that 'Falling Skies' doesn't seem comfortable exploring political analogies or delving deeply into moral quandaries, why not do what 'The Walking Dead' did and tell sturdy, familiar genre tales very well?
'Falling Skies' sometimes goes that route, but it could be a lot more consistent and creative in that regard. Take the doctor character played by the dependably good Steven Weber: His story could have been an interesting exploration of arrogance that has, under immense pressure, curdled into cruelty, but his character just ends up being a one-dimensional jerk who annoyingly meddles in efforts to gain intel about the aliens.
Wyle's stoic character, Mason, is the second-in-command of the 2nd Massachusetts, an ad-hoc military regiment near Boston that is part of an effort to organize a coordinated resistance to the invaders. Thanks to Wyle's innate subtlety and low-key skills, the scenes of Mason with his three sons usually don't tip over into overly sentimental territory. Still, there are moments when the show works so hard to make Mason seem noble and resolute that he seems almost childishly naive.
Will Patton gives a good, gruff performances as Weaver, the 2nd Mass' commander, but his military leadership is inconsistent at best -- he's perceptive and relentless at certain moments, but at other times, he's surprisingly gullible and passive. And this isn't because the character himself is complex and contradictory, it's because various aspects of 'Falling Skies' don't display consistent internal logic.
Though all the characters remain more or less two-dimensional, when the action kicks in, that tends not to matter. The invading aliens are enslaving the world's children, and scenes of the survivors trying to rescue kids are usually well executed, and as the series progresses (I've seen seven of the season's 10 hours), we get tantalizing nuggets of information about what the aliens are doing with the kids. As you would expect in any self-respecting alien-invasion story, things are not as they first appear.
Nothing that 'Falling Skies' does is particularly original, but I would have happily watched a sci-fi version of 'Band of Brothers' with extra helpings of zombified kids. But seven hours in, the only person I truly cared about was Pope, the show's most flawed, self-absorbed character. Pope is proof that the kind of stiff nobility and easy sentiment on display here will only get you so far: Amused self-interest combined combined with an elastic moral code and an unpredictable intelligence are a lot more fun to watch.
There's certainly intelligence on display in the first couple of episodes of 'Outcasts,' but also a penchant for the kind of Serious Ideas that can steer a show's momentum into a storytelling morass. I should say at the outset that BBC America has informed me that 'Outcasts' episodes, which ran for just under 60 minutes in the U.K., will be cut down to 45 minutes in the U.S. I'm not normally one to say things like this, but I wonder if that might be good thing for 'Outcasts.' The second hour of this show was almost insufferably slow-moving, and the first had some pacing issues as well.
Still, 'Outcasts' did a good job in its first couple of hours of creating an absorbing atmosphere and nuanced characters I wanted to spend more time with. We meet the residents of the suitably lived-in Fort Haven on the planet Carpathia 10 years after the settlement has been established. More settlers from a dying Earth are on the way, but what they'll find when they get there -- a ragged but well-run community or a low-key authoritarian regime -- is open to debate.
Jamie Bamber of 'Battlestar Galactica' plays a resident who's not particularly keen on the status quo, and the rest of the ensemble cast is strong as well, particularly Liam Cunningham as Tate, the settlement's president. Things take a unpromising turn when Eric Mabius turns up as Julius Berger, who I think is meant to be an ambiguous, charismatic Ben Linus type but who comes off as a smarmy, ego-driven manipulator from the moment he arrives on screen.
Another thing worth noting: The BBC canceled 'Outcasts' after its first eight-episode season. It's not impossible to see why: The show has some ponderous moments and its characters are sometimes guilty of not asking and answering direct questions that would give them valuable information. But eight episodes isn't too much of a commitment, and 'Outcasts' at least has thematic and character-driven ambitions, as well as a gorgeously weird setting (it was shot in South Africa).
Both 'Falling Skies' and 'Outcasts' eventually start to ask the age-old question of speculative fiction: Are human beings their own worst enemies, rather than alien invaders or an alien environment? After eight episodes, 'Outcasts' will be done for good, but if 'Falling Skies' gets a second season, it may get a chance to ask those kinds of questions in a deeper and more consistently compelling way.
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