Summer series are a special treat for the television inclined. The shorter format (usually between ten and twelve episodes each) and smaller budgets demand that TV writers and producers have to pack a lot of storytelling into each episode to complete a season arc in time. The happy result for viewers is that, just like short stories in fiction, there’s very little messing around. Character introductions are bold and strong. The story hooks are out there from the beginning. (Compare that to the excellent drama, Fringe, in which the true story threat becomes evident in the middle of the third season!) It’s easier to get involved in these short projects because producers seem a lot more unwilling to leave a season on a cliffhanger (or trailing off into the unknown like Stargate: Universe) when it’s a ten-month wait to get answers. I said less likely, not impossible.
The drive to get the story out in time can even force the producers’ favorite mistakes out of the limelight, MTV’s unexpected hit Teen Wolf series runs out of time to show twenty-somethings nearly naked by the 3rd or 4th episode of each season, and is forced almost against its will into a surprisingly good urban fantasy story, for one example (though I still wouldn’t recommend the show for anyone actually in High School or younger, there’s nothing in the series worse than Game of Thrones or its endless string of imitators). There are some defiant moments of skin in the later episodes of season 2, but it’s the action of a drowning man coming up for air. Similarly, SyFy’s re-broadcast of the Canadian series Continuum reads like a classic science-fiction novella as soon as the story gets going and the producers are out of time to spout knee-jerk rhetoric about how evil and corrupt businesses are (sparing us from the CBC’s liberal-intellectual self-indulgence as opposed to MTV’s hormonal one). With unexamined political assumptions out of the way, Continuum does a nice job examining the classic time-travel questions of causality, purpose, destiny, and choices we make about who we are for a really nice procedural/counter-terrorism drama and some solid character choices. Probably the most tightly-written summer series in recent years is the wildly popular Burn Notice, which has little gratuitous anything. That’s partly because of good production, and partly because the entire series is straight escapist romp, as anything casting Bruce Campbell should rightly be!
I’m not the only one to notice these advantages. Some of the best nerd-fare out there has adopted these principles into regular season shows. AMC’s The Walking Dead has more than doubled its episodes per year, but has yet to throw a single filler episode into the mix. Revolution has actually adopted a short-season format to its full-season series, with the first half of its first season dedicated to character discovery, and the second half dedicated to… well… that would be telling. Go and see yourself! Then of course there was this past year’s shocking announcement that Teen Wolf has gone to a full-season format, a rare example of the tiny series making it big.
Nothing would please me more than to see my favorite summer series develop into a full-time drama, though at this point it remains a pipe dream. My favorite summer series of the past few years has been Noah Wyle’s Falling Skies, a ‘low’ science fiction series that deals with human resistance to a successful alien invasion. It’s a small production team, with an obviously limited budget, and that means that there’s almost nothing but story for the science-fiction inclined. Falling Skies weaves its way through several landmines that have blown other science fiction series out of the water. Roddenberry’s Earth: Final Conflict, spun away from actual people into a never-ending cycle of power-ups for energy beings, sort of like Pokemon for Star Trek fans, but in the process it lost connection to the reality of everyday Earth and the people everyone was fighting for. Stargate: Universe began with a fascinating ensemble cast that lost ratings quickly as it turned into a body-sharing soap opera in space and never developed the potential of the ship or its mission beyond the bare necessity, a classic example of drama at the cost of plot. In case you’re wondering, that means bad drama.
Falling Skies places its warriors and people together. The 2nd Massachusetts has 200 fighters and 300 civilians under their care, so the fight takes place woven through the everyday lives of survivors on the run. Everything is relevant, all the time, because the home drama is the fighters’ drama, and there’s never a question about the goals in mind since the 2nd in command. Wyle’s protagonist Tom Mason’s sons are with him, one fighting and one trying to grow up on the run, from the very beginning. There are no talking heads in the series, so we get to learn and grow into the world right alongside the resistance fighters. Falling Skies has two of my favorite story elements of all: Dynamic characters and evolving worlds. The things that the Mason family and the 2nd Mass faces changes them, and those changes stick without erasing who characters used to be and hope to be in the future. The invading aliens are up to something, not just present out of megalomaniacal zeal, so they also have goals, worldviews, and attitudes that change as they react to the ongoing human resistance.
A trio of supporting characters make a decent premise something more. Colin Cunningham plays John Pope, an ex-con for whom the end of the world means the end of all the rules. Will Patton gives a solid counterpoint with Captain Weaver, the hardened military commander of the 2nd Mass for whom the mission is all, and the civilians an unwanted problem. Moon Bloodgood’s Dr. Anne Glass represents the civilian side, taking a pediatrician’s skills to deal with the responsibilities of both military and civilian populations. That’s where the series begins. But all of these characters grow well together without becoming a conflict-free Star Trek ensemble. Ray Robbins, Connor Jessup, and Sarah Carter round out a supporting cast that could occupy an essay apiece.
The series does an excellent job of making the story match the production values. With supporting cast of scores of ragged refugees, the family-based decisions about food and medicine matter as much as the plans to blow up the Death Star at the end of Season 1 (my term, not theirs). Like all truly good science fiction stories the hypothetical questions about a possible future calls up genuine questions about our choices and beliefs in the present. How much trust do you give the gang of convicts you half-captured, half-saved? How do you live with a family member who has been changed, but still alive? Where is the balance between the immediate needs of your family and the job you have to do to provide them with a future? I strongly approve of the small-squad guerrilla warfare that the 2nd Mass engages in after all organized armies in the world were smashed with no real challenge. For the history buffs there are allusions aplenty to the American Revolutionary War, and some interesting questions of age-old American concepts like the balance between the civilian and military roles and priorities.
Then of course there is a bonus treat for the writing critic: Seasons 2 and 3 have included a review show afterwards at TNT.com called 2nd Watch, hosted by Will Wheaton, that discusses the choices and ideas of the series in general and episodes in particular. Spoiler alerts abound, but it stays show-focused and reveals a lot of goodies for the thinker, actor, writer, or nerd within us all.
If you’re looking for some summer fun to fill the last few weeks before school starts again, Falling Skies is a good place to start.