When Noah Wyle’s alien invasion show “Falling Skies” returned to TNT last Sunday night for Season Three, the action jumped forward seven months after another species of extraterrestrial landed on Earth. And this time, the aliens brought about 4.2 million viewers with them.
The post-apocalyptic sci-fi series by Executive Producer Steven Spielberg about family man Tom Mason (Wyle) and his band of 2nd Massachusetts Militia Regiment human resistance fighters that battle to survive in an altered landscape is not so different from the show itself. Although “Falling Skies” enjoyed the biggest series launch when it premiered in 2011 with 5.9 million viewers, and continued to perform during its second season, the family-friendly summer show exists in a world of TV binge-viewing alongside genre juggernauts like “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones” – you know, those other shows where nudity and graphic gore is allowed.
Still, despite those hindrances, TNT reported Monday that the “Falling Skies” premiere picked up an additional 24% of the coveted 18-34 year-old demographic over last season’s -- which the network said helped it rank as basic cable’s top network in primetime Sunday night.
This is obviously good news for Wyle. The show exists under Spielberg’s brand, was created by Robert Rodat, and “Caprica” co-creator Remi Aubuchon serves as its showrunner. But Wyle is very much involved as a leader on “Falling Skies.” The “ER” alum, who also appeared in TNT’s “The Librarian” TV-movie franchise, is a producer on the show in addition to being the ensemble’s star. And on both sides of the camera, he is a leading man whose voice matters. Within the show’s universe, that leadership has only grown now that Wyle’s Mason is taking over as President of the United States.
As such, the elder statesman of the “Falling Skies” cast and of the 2nd Mass joined MTV Geek to discuss the third season of the show, along with the business of TV, the sci-fi genre, and the growth and future of the series:
MTV Geek: The first season of “Falling Skies” was about getting established, the second season was darker and expanded the mythology, so how do you characterize this third season?
Noah Wyle: It has gotten continually better and has refined what it wants to be to a certain degree. The first season was very much a “setting the table” season: these are the characters, this is the world, this is the threat. We weren’t particularly sure which aspects of the show were going to be the most compelling. We learned from the first season, and applied it to the second season. As a result, we got a little bit darker and expanded the mythology a bit and revealed a lot more of who these people were as characters … There’s some big story lines I was a bit nervous about embarking on so early in this season. It required a lot of diligence and a lot of attention to detail to build that over the course of the season. As a result, I think we have the most satisfying and dynamic season yet.
Geek: When we catch up with Tom in the third season, he’s President of the United States. Even considering the alien invasion and other fantastic elements to this show, how do you evolve that character to be president while keeping it believable?
Wyle: Two things: One thing is I knew there had to be a learning curve to power for this guy, and that he’s not stupid. In order to justify him in taking on this additional responsibility, I think he sees it as a bit of pageantry and a bit of ritual to keep everybody calm and give them a sense of normalcy in this very unnatural situation. I know he thinks it’s premature and the creation of a new government structure is going to have to come secondary to winning the war, but certain things need to play themselves out to give everybody a sense of calm. I also think it’s like wearing a suit that doesn’t fit very well; he’s accepted it but he hasn’t embraced it. He’s sort of acting presidential but afraid of being presidential. As long as I am playing the character, I kept undercutting him with self-effacing humor and humility and misgivings about how well he’s doing in this particular job, and kept him grounded in the sense of truth I could buy. There’s a line of dialogue I improvised in one of the early episodes. Someone refers to him as the President of the United States, and he counters with, “I’m really just the president of 20 square blocks.” He thinks of himself more as a mayor of a small town than the President of the United States.
Geek: We saw character deaths last season, so will we see more this season, and how do you use that device without it becoming just another death-of-the-week?
Wyle: That’s tricky. I don’t know who invented it but we used to do it on “ER” all the time. It is great for Sweeps to kill a character. It’s dynamic storytelling but how do you pick and choose, and how do you play it out? There’s no getting around that it works on this particular kind of show extremely well because you want to have this ever-present tension and threat that anything can happen at any time. Anybody’s life can be snuffed out at a moment’s notice. And so, to remind the audience of that, every once in a while you got to kill somebody. Sometimes you kill a character like Jimmy [Dylan Authors], who’s the innocent, to make a point that it’s the end of a certain kind of era. That this is going to be a very realistic and sober group from here on out. Sometimes you kill a character like Dai [Peter Shinkoda] to underscore that even somebody you take for granted to being inherent to the core of the group can be gone at any moment. It’s always hard on a personal level, especially with an actor you’ve known since the beginning, to lose a character like that. But it also makes room to add new characters to the narrative, which is really important to keep the storytelling fresh. We lost a couple last year but picked up a very valuable player in Robert Sean Leonard and Gloria Reuben this year, and they help facilitate our storytelling to a larger degree than those characters probably could have. So it’s a tough one. Certain characters are just key and have excellent job security as a result. Other ones? You know, it’s up for grabs.
Geek: Do you see this show getting to a point where you may be ready to move on but the show could continue?
Wyle: I don’t think this show could continue without me! [laughs] He said so modestly. I wear a lot of hats on that set, so whether it’s my contribution in front of the camera or behind the camera, I’m all over it. I find it really gratifying and challenging work, and my guess is the longevity of the show will, in a way, mirror my level of interest. When I feel like it’s starting to lose its teeth, everyone else will feel that way as well and we’ll all want to wrap it up around the same time.
Geek: “Falling Skies” gets some attention from the media but many outlets don’t seem to have adopted it yet within their coverage. Has it earned the respect you think it deserves?
Wyle: I mean, it hasn’t been a real media darling. It hasn’t popped in the way “The Walking Dead” has and a couple of other shows have. It is going to be very interesting to see how we come out of the box this season and whether or not we benefit from what surely “The Walking Dead” did when they went up on a digital platform and allowed people to see it -- binge-view it -- that hadn’t caught it yet. It came back with about a million more viewers than they had before and broke out of the gate at that point. You know, I think I can very honestly, objectively say the first season was good; it wasn’t great. The second season was better, the third season is our strongest yet.
But it’s a very interesting playing field right now and it’s there’s some serious competition on the field. I don’t know how you can possibly compare our show to “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men” or “Game of Thrones.” Some of the best writing on television that I’ve ever seen is on television right now. We’re hamstrung with a couple of things. On a basic cable channel, we’re hamstrung by certain Standards and Practices still, but the bigger obstacle is creating the same sense of drama in a five-act structure and breaking for commercials every 10 minutes, and having to arc up and down in your writing to accommodate those breaks is really challenging. We did the best that we can, and I think we keep doing better than the year before and that’s all I can ask of anybody, and all we can hope for.
Geek: Has your appreciation of the science fiction genre changed or evolved since beginning this show?
Wyle: Yeah, to an extent. If I was at all dismissive of it beforehand, I’m not any longer. I find it an extremely challenging genre to work in, and you have a particular audience that pays closer attention to detail than just about any other. And you can lose their loyalty very quickly if you don’t dot your “I”s and cross your “T”s. You really have to make sure your mythology is air tight, because there are very sophisticated viewers out there who have a very deep well of knowledge to draw from when they make their critical analysis of your show!
Geek: Is there a scene or episode coming up that really sums up the tone or direction for “Falling Skies” Season Three?
Wyle: I’m not sure what order it will be aired in, because we shot it out of context out of necessity, but I think it’s going to be number eight. The title of the episode is “Strange Brew,” written by John Wirth and directed by David Solomon. I think, in a lot of ways, it’s our most interesting and engaging episode yet.