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‘Falling Skies’ a trustworthy family drama but with aliens

Drew Roy Jessy Schram play survivors an alien invasi“Falling Skies” new family drampremiering Sunday TNT.

Drew Roy and Jessy Schram play survivors of an alien invasion on “Falling Skies,” a new family drama premiering Sunday on TNT.

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8 to 10 p.m. this Sunday, then 9 to 10 p.m. Sundays on TNT.

Updated: August 3, 2011 9:17PM

‘Falling Skies” is a cable series about an alien invasion, but we never see the invasion. That happened six months ago.

The backstory is supplied this Sunday in the premiere’s chilling opening montage — a series of children’s pencil and crayon drawings, like those assigned by the school psychologist to analyze young trauma or abuse. The carefully crude depictions show spaceships wiping out armies, some kind of mass energy weapon zapping cities, kids being leashed by green creatures with tentacles.

Children are also narrating the exposition. “I was in school when the ships came,” says one. “They were really big,” says another. “They blew up the Army bases, ships, the Navy, submarines, and all the soldiers are gone.” “After that, they blew up all the capitals. New York. Washington, D.C., Paris.” “Then they came.” “There were millions of them.”

“They didn’t want to be friends.” “Not at all.”

It’s not just a cheap tactic — kids are the key here. “Falling Skies” is a family drama, above all, that just happens to employ post-apocalyptic language and slimy space aliens.

The story centers on Tom Mason, played by Noah Wyle (“ER”), a Boston professor of military history who’s ended up as a soldier in a typically ragtag band of poorly supplied resistance fighters, the 2nd Mass. A widower (his wife was killed in the first attack), Mason fights for his three sons; two of them are with him, but the aliens have the other one.

We don’t know much about the motivation of these aliens — octopus-like lizards (the surviving humans already have dubbed them with slang: “skitters”) and hulking, Cylon-esque droids (“mechs”) — but they seem to want our kids. Right away we see human children who have been captured and fitted with spidery harnesses and are being used as slave labor, mostly gathering scrap metal, which might be servicing the large platform-like structures being erected like Death Stars at the center of many major Earth cities.

“It’s not about the invasion — it’s about the resistance,” co-executive producer Mark Verheiden (“Heroes,” “Battlestar Galactica”) told the Hollywood Reporter at Monday’s premiere in West Hollywood. “It’s about finding hope in an otherwise hopeless situation.”

The personalized tone of “Falling Skies” likely also results from another executive producer, Steven Spielberg. While several alien-invasion flicks clogging multiplexes have been mostly thin, character-free CGI assaults (“Skyline,” “Battle: Los Angeles”), Spielberg again recently worked his humanizing magic on the genre with “Super 8” (aliens! kids!). Likewise, “Falling Skies” succeeds because its story is very earthbound. As we watch the survivors scrounge for food and, in their surprisingly copious time free of alien attacks, consider a life without basic human distractions, they begin to consciously consider what exactly they might be fighting for.

“There’s no electricity, there’s no Internet, there’s no communications, our armies have been wiped out,” Verheiden said in another recent interview, with Fangoria magazine. “So you’re left with people [for] whom essentially the veneer of civilization has been stripped away. Politics don’t really matter anymore. Now it’s about survival … And what are we surviving to do? What is survival about? Is this just about hanging on with our fingernails and trying to shoot a couple aliens, or is this about making a world that our kids can be in while trying to figure out how we can kick those aliens off our planet?”

Indeed, lots of questions, but “Falling Skies” never strikes a tone of impending deceit. The series, at least all the way through the first season, maintains a Zen-like, in-the-moment spirit. There are no flashbacks, no flash forwards, no cutaways to a big, green alien mastermind hatching a secret, sinister plot. We’re on the same level as the survivors. We know only what the characters know and when they know it, piecing the puzzle together as they do. After years of complicated, confounding, are-they-making-this-up-as-they-go? plots in the style of “Lost” and “Fringe,” “Falling Skies” feels refreshingly trustworthy.

Wyle is great casting for this. His fairly meek, aw-shucks personality makes the perfect dad, and he presents an almost sage-like resignation to the loss of his old life and acceptance of the new normal. It’s far from the golly-gee tone of “The Librarian.” Then again, we also never doubt his steely determination and red-faced ferocity when he blasts the first skitter point-blank with a shotgun.

The rest of the cast is mostly good, with some problems (Wyle’s character can be meek, but Will Patton’s soft, purring portrayal of military leader Weaver tips the scales a bit much) and a few standouts. As the season develops, enjoy the evolution of Moon Bloodgood (“Terminator Salvation”), another actor here striking the right balance of hard and soft, playing a pediatrician drafted into wider medical service. Collin Cunningham as criminal and chef John Pope is fantastic, actually giving the role of comic relief some gravitas.

It should be noted, too, for sci-fi fans: The special effects are quite good. A mix of CGI and rubbery puppets, the skitters are convincing creatures — characters, eventually — and the mechs and a few flying ships rarely seem wonky.

It’s “Jericho” meets “V,” with the good from both and the bad discarded. It’ll raise the summer-TV bar significantly.

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