29 December 2015

Morality and Falling Skies

(This is a continuation of last night's post on "moral realism", which was a continuation of Sunday's post on philosophical fiction and TV.)

Think about the 1950s morality play A Man for All Seasons, by Robert Bolt.  Anyone who has read or seen this play, or seen the film version of it, should have a good sense of the story's moral: Be yourself, or you will find yourself incapable of being anyone at all. The principle could be framed in other ways, or identified along parallel lines, but it is roughly that.  The play is wonderfully written, with great characters and excellent lines.  But it is not an example of moral realism as I described it in my previous post.  Not because it isn't in many regards realistic (although I doubt that Bolt's existentialist ethic has much to do with St. Thomas More's way of thinking), but because it is contrived to hammer home a very specific moral message.  Now, this fact — the fact that A Man for All Seasons is a morality play — does not detract from its excellence, but it separates it from the genre I would like to discuss.

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I began writing this series with the intention of talking about certain odd traits of TNT's post-apocalyptic alien invasion family drama Falling Skies.  The show aired from 2011 to 2015, the fifth and final season airing this past summer.  It tells the story of the "2nd Massachusetts", an improvised militia formed after the decimation of humanity by six-legged aliens and their military drones.  Specifically, the story centers on Tom Mason, a former BU American History professor, and his three sons: Matt, Ben, and Hal, who are respectively 7, 12, and 16 at the beginning of the series.

Before I say more, I should offer this disclaimer: Falling Skies is an enjoyable sci-fi family drama, with decent acting and decent writing.  It's not without its share of clich├ęs, plot holes, and weak moments.  The last two seasons go down a strange path that makes the show much less interesting than it was at first.  But I personally found the show emotionally engaging and compelling enough to keep watching all the way through.  It's not brilliant TV, but it's better than average, and I think the concept of the show and the principles on which it seems to have been executed were solid.

One of the nice things about the show (from a sci-fi alien invasion perspective) is that it begins several months after the alien invasion, when the rubble has largely settled, so we aren't put through the tedium of watching people figure out what's going on or any of that.  By the time Falling Skies begins, the 2nd Mass. has an established chain of command, a doctor, methods of staying supplied, etc.  Furthermore, the fact that the aliens have such a strong upper hand reduces the military-tactical element of the show, and makes it less a command/strategy war room drama than it would be otherwise.  Tactics come up, and frequently, but they're mostly in the background, and focus on hiding, escaping, and winning small victories.

All of this allows Falling Skies to be a family/community drama.  It's primarily about the people, and most of all about the Masons, and (for the first three seasons at least) the writers do a good job of it.  I could run through a lot of the successes of the show, but what's most impressive to me is the way the Mason sons are written and performed.  Conservatives often complain about the absence of good fathers in mainstream media.  Tom Mason is an unusually good father (loving, honest, self-sacrificing, supportive, disciplined).  His sons are peculiar as well.  Each is assigned his stereotype at some point in the first season as the backstory emerges (lacrosse bro, super-nerd, youngest), but the types don't really pan out in terms of expected behavior.  Hal does not act like everyone's idea of a lacrosse bro.  He's obedient, loyal to his father, and reasonably soft-spoken.  He doesn't start strutting until later on in the show, and this seems to be more a function of overconfidence on account of military achievement than anything.

The youngest, Matt, has some fairly weak lines in the first season (he's too much the cute little kid wandering around among the adults), but the show's creators emphasize his maturation as the series progresses, and the actor playing Matt (Maxim Knight) develops impressively.  Matt's storyline is probably the best thing about the show's fourth season.  (Suddenly he has his own personality, interests, and commitments.)

Ben Mason (played by Connor Jessup), the middle son, also seems to me to have been a really well-drawn character.  I'm not sure whether it's because the character is somehow a reflection of Jessup's real-life personality, or whether he simply does a good job of it, but I've rarely seen teenage nerdiness portrayed so well in a TV show. Jessup masters the self-conscious deadpan and awkward (almost stilted) delivery typical of kids who have spent too much time in their own heads.  Better still, the writers don't chain Ben to the nerd stereotype, and stock characteristics are kept to a minimum (one reference to manga in the entire series, a couple of references to Ben being "smart", and one scene with him trading riddles with a friend).

Aside from the Masons as characters (and I should mention that Noah Wyle does a good job as Tom Mason, as does Moon Bloodgood, who plays the regimental doctor), the other odd thing about this show is the extent to which the writers simply portray the behavior and developing necessities of the group without moral comment.  There's something weird about all these pre-teens walking around with assault rifles, and something weirder about the fact that the writers barely even touch the question in dialogue, and when they do so they do it only very mildly.  The ethics of killing captured aliens is not questioned.  In one scene an alien is interrogated while being tortured, and the writers don't give the slightest clue that we should question this behavior.  In any other show I would expect characters to ruminate over the sentience and personhood of the aliens, and think about their rights, or to fret at length about the implications of allowing children to bear arms.  Not here.  What a relief!  In a show like this any attempt to handle such questions would risk coming across as both trite and aggressively moralistic, and transforming itself into a series of disconnected morality plays.

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What makes Falling Skies enjoyable?
—The emotional connection to the characters.

Are the characters performed well?
—What does that mean?  What would it mean for a character to be well or poorly performed?

A character is performed well when the facts given in script and setting are synthesized well by the actor into a plausible whole with reasonable affect, delivery, and body language.  Does the actor make it easy to think of the character as a real person?

(Side note: sometimes if the character is foreign to the sensibilities of the viewer, the character will be hard to believe.  Characters are familiar when they're real or similar to real people, or when they embody familiar character types from fictions.)

So, back to the original question: Why is Falling Skies so enjoyable?  
—Because the character drama appeals to me.

What about it?  
—The story is about familial love and shows people in adverse conditions struggling together for what they need.  Additionally, the personalities are not, on the whole, overladen with moral defects.

There's also Ben Mason, who (despite, or perhaps because of, the stiff acting and weird delivery) represents something I see in myself.  The nerdy stereotype is great and well-executed, and I like the dispassionate loner-ness.  There's a lot of potential for sadness, self-loathing and despair in the character, but Ben appears not to experience it.  The combination of unique personal strengths, lack of shame, and nerdiness.

What else do I like about Falling Skies?  
—The show stands for good things — loyalty, courage, obedience, honesty, discipline, filial and civic piety, justice, etc.  And it is structured in such a way that these virtues are never corrupted or called into question.  (Compare to the average WB drama during the age of 7th Heaven, where everyone begins wholesome and innocent, and ends up mired in vice and basically terrible.)  The Masons never "break bad".  They never become wicked.  To the end, the main cast is motivated by piety and love.

So, is the appeal of the show really about love and virtue?  
Yeah, it seems like it — love, virtue, and personal identification with the characters.  Kind of interesting, no?  But then, what else could you really ask for in a family/community drama of that variety?

Good point.