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Credit: TNT

Falling Skies, Spielberg's underrated alien-occupation drama you probably missed, just hit HBO Max

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Dec 4, 2020, 9:01 AM EST

An ambitious family drama about survivors making their way through the post-apocalypse, trying not to lose their humanity as they fight to rebuild the world into something that might have a chance to last after they’re gone? No, it’s not The Walking Dead — I’m talking about alien occupation thriller Falling Skies, which ran from 2011-2015 on TNT.

The streaming wars have created a landscape wherein more and more services are vying for material, digging into studio catalogs, and green-lighting ambitious new originals. HBO Max’s latest bid to beef up its sci-fi TV offerings heading into 2021 turned out to be good news for Falling Skies fans, as the cult hit has finally found a high-profile streaming home after being in the wilderness the past few years with no easy means for fans to revisit the show. That’s right: All five seasons of Falling Skies are streaming on HBO Max, right now (go check for yourself, we’ll wait).

If you’re unfamiliar or just a bit foggy, let us remind you of its pedigree. Falling Skies was one of TNT’s most ambitious original TV projects in the early 2010s, produced by Steven Spielberg himself and starring ER’s Noah Wyle, fresh off his star-making network turn in The Librarian series of TV movies. It featured a big budget (with episodes reportedly clocking in at $4 million each), high production values, and an expansive ensemble cast with genre favorites like Moon Bloodgood (Terminator: Salvation), Doug Jones (Star Trek: Discovery), and Colin Cunningham (Stargate SG-1) along for the ride. The show followed Wyle’s Tom Mason, a history professor-turned-resistance leader trying to hold together a group of survivors in a world that’s been largely destroyed by an alien occupation.

Looking back, it’s wild to think this series ran for five seasons and 52 episodes, a rare modern sci-fi drama on the TNT dial, airing alongside more traditional dramas and dramedys like Franklin & Bash, Rizzoli and Isles, and Southland. But it did, and it exists in all its alien-fighting, fully-binge-able glory for us now.

Credit: TNT

As for a touchstone for why the series is as compelling and relevant as ever in 2020, it’s the same reason most of Spielberg’s works stand the test of time: He knows what he’s doing. He’s built his career telling simple stories with heart around the fantastical, and Falling Skies checks off all those Spielbergian boxes fans have come to expect. It’s ambitious, dangerous, well-shot, and loaded with sci-fi and spectacle — but the family story is what drives this show, and it never loses sight of that, even when it kind of tries. Just like E.T.’s found family grounds that classic tale of friendship, or the father-son relationship between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery that made us care so much about Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. These are levers Spielberg is good at pulling, and he’s as good as ever here.

Much like how The Walking Dead turned its post-apocalypse survival into a decade-long (and ongoing) franchise by telling stories of found family beyond the end of the world, Falling Skies also paved the way (albeit with a bit more family-friendly path) for those same types of adventures. Looking for another comparison, it almost felt like a spiritual successor to CBS’s beloved, short-lived 2006 series Jericho — a nuclear fallout drama about a small town cut off after a global attack. It wasn’t afraid to take its time telling the little stories in the backdrop of the really big ones, and that’s what made it so compelling.

That said, is the show perfect? Not by a long shot. All that ambition and big-budget action were occasionally mired by creative shake-ups behind the scenes, and at one point the show had been through five showrunners by the time it’d made just 30 hours of television. Which, yeah, isn’t a normal recipe for success — though thankfully the churn wasn’t all that obvious onscreen, though the mythology of the aliens and those storylines did swing a bit wide and random along the way. But, even then, it’s clear the creatives knew the real story was about the survivors, and it never strayed too far from those arcs and emotions.

Even when the endgame comes into view in years 4-5 (no spoilers here, in case you’re discovering or rewatching!), it’s a human story framing and grounding this massive alien battle for control of the universe, and along with the big ideas and world-ending stakes, it always comes back to Tom and his fight to protect his family. It’s a father’s journey as that throughline, and Falling Skies rides or dies on that choice for five years strong — and is undoubtedly the better for it.

Knowing what drove this show kept it afloat, and carried it through to a true endgame finale where the story could come to a final and planned ending. So no worries if you’re still debating a binge, there is an ending — no cancellation cliffhanger here.

And yes, it’s well worth the journey — because we could all use a well-meaning dad like Tom Mason, especially these days.