Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Season Premieres - Burn Notice and Falling Skies

  My old and new favorite television shows started their 2013 seasons this past week. My old favorite was Burn Notice’; the USA Network series detailing the adventures of turned out spy Michael Westen and his band of friends, relatives, and acquaintances as he attempts to clear his name with the CIA. This season has been announced by the network as the final season and been dubbed ‘Final Notice’. While I hate to see the show end, I am also of the opinion that its best days are long behind it.

  The first three or four seasons had the quest for Michael’s reinstatement as a subplot with meat of the episodes being the various cases Michael takes on in South Florida with the help of his best friend (womanizer, mojito and beer drinker, and ex-Navy Seal) Sam Axe, girlfriend Fiona Glenanne (former IRA weapons and explosives expert), and his chain-smoking mother. Westen and crew are perpetually outgunned, but outwit their adversaries by subterfuge and expert con-artistry mixed in with a few well timed gunfights and explosions. The plots were a mix of a couple of my favorite shows from yesteryear: Switch’ (Robert Wagner playing as a former con-man teaming with ex-cop Eddie Albert) and ‘Mission Impossible’ in that the bad guys are invariably ruined from within by their own ego or tricked into turning on their partners. One of my favorite episodes was ‘Friendly Fire’ in which Michael pretends to be a character with devil-like powers in order to give a gang underlord the courage to turn on his overlord (the real target).

  Westen and crew carried out their cons with a good humor and it was always fun to see what they would come up with (often in a McGyveresque fashion) to outwit their enemies each week but the tone of the series changed starting in Season 4 when Westen was ‘un-burned’ and became a CIA operative once again. The CIA intrigue became the main focus with the side cases as the subplot. Without time to develop, the side cases became less interesting. The CIA intrigue led to the shooting of Westen’s brother Nate and a season long hunt for his killer. In season six, Westen murdered the man who ordered his brother’s killing and the crew spent the entire season on the run from the CIA.

  In the premiere episode of the final season, the tone was darker than ever with Michael in deep cover working for a CIA target and his crew drawn into the web of intrigue. Instead of pretending to be a supernatural devil or good ole boy gas jockey, Michael is just pretending to be a drunk ex-spy. The only humor in the episode was Fiona’s obvious glee at shooting her target at point blank range with a bean bag gun. I used to watch this show because of the fun the characters had as they worked through their adventures each week and the cleverness of the plots, but the only reason I’m watching this year is because I know the characters and I’d like to see what happens to them in their last season in a soap opera sort of way. If the remaining episodes are as humorless as the premiere, I may not even make it that far.

  On Sunday my new favorite TV show ‘Falling Skies’ began its third season with a two hour episode. While I liked Burn Notice because of its light touch, Falling Skies as a dark a show as I’ve seen in a long time, but the creators have embraced the dark aspects of the show and rarely vary from the grim reality it portrays.

  My son Ben tried to tell me I’d really like this show about the struggles of the band of survivors (the second Massachusetts regiment) of an alien invasion on a post-apocalyptic Earth, but I ignored the show until I happened to catch a rerun one Saturday morning on TNT and was hooked. Season one was about the resistance’s battle to survive and fight back against the aliens that are killing the adults and turning the children into slaves with the help of self-harnessing biomechanical creatures. The main characters are Noah Wylie as Professor Tom Mason: second in command of the resistance unit and the father of three sons who have had to become child-soldiers and Moon Bloodgood as Anne Glass, Mason’s love interest and the company medic. The main villain (aside from the invading aliens) is Karen, a harnessed teenager (and former girlfriend of Tom’s oldest son Hal), who speaks for the alien overlords. Jessy Schram seems to have a great time in her role as Karen, who has not only accepted her role as a harnessed human but in fact embraced it and is becoming a rising star in the alien hierarchy. And it never hurts to have one of my favorite actors on board in Will Patton (the sadistic Quentin Glass in the classic 2004 movie 'The Punisher'). Patton is Captain Dan Weaver, the head of the resistance who gives the survivors the inspiration to continue their struggles against all odds.

  The first season started a little slow as the resistance learned about the alien overlords and their six-legged army of crawling creatures (skitters) and mechanized robots (mechs), but picked up at the end as the resistance counterattacked while discovering that the skitters are being controlled by harnesses (just like the human children) and that Mason’s son is still in contact with the aliens despite being freed from his harness. This was just a prelude for the second season when the show really picked up steam. A skitter rebellion formed an uprising against the alien overlords (lovingly nicknamed ‘fish heads’) and two new menaces were revealed: ‘eye worms’ that seem to be able to read and influence minds and flesh eating spiders. At the end of the season, the second Mass travelled to Charleston to meet up with a large group of survivors that have formed a new United States in an underground subway/mall system and join the skitter rebellion to take out an alien installation. My favorite two episodes were ‘Homecoming’ and ‘Molon Labe’ in which the resistance are deceived by Karen, pinned down by the enemy, and attacked from within by the flesh eating spiders. In the last seconds of Season 2, a new alien race is revealed with a year to wait before their purpose is revealed.

  I was a little disappointed as season three picks up seven months after the season two finale with the resistance and new alien race (the Volm) already allied against the alien overlords, Mason having been elected President of Charleston, and Mason and Glass’s child being born. On the other hand, there was no wasted time on quiet episodes with elections, alien introductions (including an explanation of why the Volm speak English in a Shakespearean tone), and the pregnant Glass in danger. This allowed the season to get under way with the resistance outfitted with new Volm technology battling the enhanced mechanical droids of the alien overlords (who are now led by former human Karen). There is plenty of alien intrigue with Mason’s son Hal being an unwitting pawn of Karen, suspicion of the Volm’s plans for Earth once the overlords are defeated, and the otherworldly cognitive development of Tom and Anne’s newborn daughter.

  So far, Falling Skies has been great, is still on the upswing, and is looking to be a sort of Star Trek set on Earth instead of outer space as the planet becomes embroiled in a larger galactic conflict. Even if Falling Skies lasts as long as Burn Notice, I don’t see the series becoming stale. There are only ten episodes a year instead of 18 for Burn Notice, a new alien menace can be introduced at any time, new survivors can always be found (as in this year’s introduction of Robert Sean Leonard who was best known as Dr. Wilson from House to play the reclusive but brilliant Dr. Kadar). The writers have also shown that except for a few select characters, anyone is disposable. Burn Notice started to lose my interest when it switched from being a fun spy show with a serious side to a serious spy show but so far Falling Skies has been exactly what it set out to be – a group of apocalypse survivors battling aliens.

  The only danger I see is that all the alien costumes, makeup, special effects are costly and if the budget is cut the show will have to cut back on its action scenes. This is a possibility since the viewership has dipped from five and a half million viewers at the end of season one to fewer than four million at the end of season two and may have been reflected in the decision to set season three in the ruins of Charleston amongst a set of interchangeable drywall interiors.

  Season three has been heavily publicized by host network TNT, but downward trends in TV ratings don’t easily reverse themselves. By comparison, Burn Notice regularly hit six million viewers in season three but has steadily trended down to less than three million by the end of season five with a slight rebound to three to four million in season six. Sunday’s premiere of Falling Skies had 4.2 million viewers but was popular with the 18-34 year old viewers while going against the NBA Finals and the season final of the popular HBO show 'Game of Thrones', while Burn Notice's Thursday debut had 4.3 million viewers. A series needs to have 80 or so episodes to be syndicated and after this season Falling Skies will only have 30. Once 40 episodes are in the books there is a great incentive for the producers to push out the remaining episodes to make syndication status so in my opinion, if the series is renewed for a fourth season it will be on the air for a long time.

I've often wondered why there are no beagles in the post-apocalyptic world of 'Falling Skies', so yesterday we took Daisy and Baxter on a 'Skitter Patrol' trial run. Now I can see that the beagles and their owners would have been the first to be to go!