LOS ANGELES (AP) — Noah Wyle is confronting an alien invasion, the death of his wife and the potential annihilation of the human species in "Falling Skies."
But he had to face a more personal issue in tackling the role of history professor Tom Mason in TNT's sci-fi series, returning 9-11 p.m. EDT Sunday for season two: Wyle, 41, has become an elder statesman, relatively speaking.
"I'm Anthony Edwards," said Wyle, referring to the "ER" co-star who's got eight years on him and boasted more credits when they started on the medical drama in 1994. "I'm the guy who's been around a little longer and has a little more set savvy."
It's a shift that came up faster than expected for Wyle, who looks younger than his years despite the beard he added for gravitas on "Falling Skies."
"When I showed up on set and realized I was going to play a father to Drew Royce, who's 26, my first instinct was, 'You gotta be kidding me.' Then I thought, 'Why is nobody else having a problem with this?'"
With his own children just 9 and 6 years old, Wyle protests, "I'm a young dad."
His TV expertise is much appreciated, said Remi Aubuchon, the show's executive producer.
"Noah is a terrific example for the rest of the cast and us. He's always on set prepared and he stays on the set. And this is a revelation for me, he reads scripts early and his notes are always well thought-out and smart."
Intelligence is a hallmark of Wyle's characters since "ER," the actor acknowledges: "I tend to play smart guys, which I like. Brains over brawn."
But Professor Tom is far from deskbound. There's plenty of opportunity for him to show off his action skills as Tom and other Earthlings fight multi-legged aliens, un-fondly nicknamed "skitters" by their human prey, and their murderous robots.
Wyle views Tom as a new form of hero who synthesizes the military code embodied by tough soldier Weaver (Will Patton) with a knowledge of history, creating what a colleague termed a "warrior statesmen."
His skills are put to the test as the new season unfolds. After voluntarily leaving Earth to meet the aliens on their spaceship turf, he's viewed with suspicion by members of Massachusetts' "2nd Mass" civilian resistance group.
The 10 episodes of season two, filmed in Vancouver, bring new depth to the characters and begin to unfold the "mythology onion" surrounding the aliens and their mission, Wyle said.
"It feels a lot fresher, a lot more fun, instead of going, 'I'm Tom Mason, I used to be a history professor. To prove that, I'm going to cite historical references for each one of these battles,'" he said.
There's definitely more action afoot this season, Aubuchon said, and at the specific direction of executive producer Steven Spielberg.
"His primary thing, and I believe he used these words, was, 'Amp it up. Fans want more. We have to deliver more than we did in the first season,'" Aubuchon said. With six months elapsed since the invasion, and the initial trauma past, the conflict had to evolve.
The 2nd Mass understands "we're not playing anymore, we're not hiding, and if we die, we die honorably," he said.
Spielberg was also adamant that "Falling Skies" avoid turning into a "hardware show" with emotions swamped by special effects, Aubuchon said. There will be family time for Tom and his three sons, and romance as well.
In one episode, widower Tom and lovely pediatrician Anne Glass (Moon Bloodgood) share a brief, tender moment over a rare chocolate treat Tom has found for her.
Call it "post-apocalyptic dating," Aubuchon said, "when you know an alien might come around the corner at any moment."
But the revved-up alien action is the payoff for Wyle's home-front audience, including his son, Owen, who helped dad choose between playing a policeman, lawyer, insurance adjustor or "Falling Skies" alien fighter.
"It keeps my son entertained," Wyle said, smiling.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. She can be reached at lelber(at)ap.org.