The missions give Falling Skies an episodic shape, with objectives that can be accomplished each week while advancing the overarching plot.
Falling Skies opens six months after a massive attack against earth, an attack that has destroyed major cities and wiped out long-range communications. Our ragtag band of survivors has been scrounging around in the suburbs of Boston, but by now they've picked the area clean and the aliens keep targeting progressively smaller groups of humans for extermination. Commander Porter (Dale Dye) decides to split the group in two and send them in different directions. Weaver (Will Patton), a soldier with extensive military experience, will be in charge of the 2nd Massachusetts Unit, with Tom Mason (Noah Wyle) as his second-in-command.
Tom is a history professor by trade, and in the series premiere he spouts facts about past wars and battles as examples of what the 2nd Mass should be doing. Though it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to assume aliens will behave like humans, it's also typical of the genre. More often, Falling Skies doesn't offer too many guesses as to the invaders' intentions. At first, all we know about them is that they are very powerful, and not incidentally, capturing and controlling teenagers via organic critters that attach to their spines, nicknamed "harnesses."
One of Tom's sons, Ben (Connor Jessup) is harnessed, and even if they do manage to rescue him from the aliens, the heroes have yet to find a way to remove the harness without killing the host. Ben's brother Hal (Drew Roy) is old enough to go on military missions and be involved in a budding (and instantly tiresome) love triangle with Karen (Jessy Schram) and Lourdes (Seychelle Gabriel).
Weaver is set up as the hard-ass authority figure who repeatedly interferes with Tom's efforts to rescue Ben. There's always another mission that needs to be taken care of before Weaver can spare him for a personal quest. Although Weaver fits a few too many military clichés (he's completely stuck on the chain of command, he resents having to drag around 200 civilians with his 100 "fighters"), his goals make sense, and Tom is too practical to complain much. Their missions give Falling Skies an episodic shape, with objectives that can be accomplished each week while advancing the overarching plot.
That plot -- essentially, how the humans will come together in order to survive -- has been linked in TNT's marketing campaign with its executive producer, Steven Spielberg. One thing the Spielberg name brings to the show is production value. The aliens, slimy, six-legged, two-armed beasties called "skitters," always look great, and the bipedal, robot-like "mechs" are convincing as well. The harnesses are sort of like organic, glowing wormlike things, appropriately creepy.
Still, Spielberg's track record as a television producer is spotty, ranging from seaQuest DSV to Band of Brothers, and so it might help that he's working here with creator Robert Rodat, whose scripts include Saving Private Ryan, as well as writer and producer Graham Yost, who worked on The Pacific and, more recently, Justified. Yost's script for the second episode introduces us to Pope (Colin Cunningham), a complicated outlaw who's reminiscent of Boyd Crowder, the Walton Goggins character on Justified. Pope's initial conversation with Tom is a standout moment, revealing that he's a man with his own moral standards and sense of purpose. That purpose occasionally lines up with what the 2nd Mass is doing, but often it doesn't.
Falling Skies' mix of compelling individuals helps to make its early use of formula less troublesome than it might have been. Later episodes develop interesting and diverse motives, as the 2nd Mass begins to figure out what the aliens are up to and how to fight them more effectively. Wyle's earnest hero is flawed and sympathetic, as he struggles with his loss, seeks to save the world, and develops a relationship with a doctor named Anne (the excellent Moon Bloodgood). What's remarkable is that he's only one of many reasons that Falling Skies is good science fiction.