First things first: I do not care whether the premise of NBC’s Revolution—all electricity, even batteries, ceases functioning, and civilization collapses—is physically plausible. I don’t know how the catastrophe happened. It happened because science. It happened because NBC had an open time slot on Monday nights. If you need a more considered explanation in order to buy the show, that’s a legitimate point of view, but I cannot help you. Maybe there’s a review you can read in Popular Science.
In the past few years, we’ve seen attempts at making this kind of mythological drama, like FlashForward and The Event, that have foregrounded their mysteries to a fault, working overtime to make sure every detail was explained and assuring us that they knew how everything would turn out–but without creating the vivid, engaging characters that are the reason to stick with a show to the end in the first place. Give us Han Solo, and we’re not going to spend too much time asking how light sabers can possibly work.
The pilot of Revolution comes across better than either of the aforementioned shows, but there are still too many forgettable characters, stock scenes and flat patches of dialogue. But it does, unlike some of its byzantine forebears, establish a straightforward scenario and goals in its first hour. Fifteen years after lights out, we rejoin post-civilized society in a surprisingly Arcadian hamlet, where survivors tend gardens using a Prius chassis as a planter, hunt with bows and crossbows a la The Hunger Games and drink coffee, or something like it, grown in the temperate Midwest. (The show has the kind of “clean apocalypse” aesthetic you might remember from CBS’s Jericho. A decade and a half after the end of civilization, it looks like you can still order from J. Crew.)
The peace is shattered with a visit from Capt. Tom Neville (Giancarlo Esposito) an officer in the militia of “Gen. Monroe,” the strongman of one of the republics that has replaced the United States. He wants information from Ben Matheson (Tim Guinee), who may know something about the long-ago electricity failure. (In this world, that knowledge is quite literally power.) When the ensuing conflict goes south, Ben’s son Danny (Graham Rogers) is taken captive and Ben’s bow-totin’ daughter Charlie (Tracy Spiridakos) goes on a quest to the ruins of Chicago for payback and answers.
The story so far is pretty much assembled from parts of previous attempts at sci-fi mythology shows. There’s an unexplained global catastrophe (FlashForward). There are rebels fighting against a dictator in a post-US banana republic (Jericho). There’s an abducted loved one who must be rescued (The Event). And there is the tantalyzing hint of secret cabals communicating behind the scenes (all the above).
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To its credit, the show does not invest everything as singlemindedly in its central mystery as did FlashForward and The Event. There’s some strong casting around the edges; Esposito, who knows that a smile is more menacing than a scowl, takes custody of the show whenever he steps on screen. The show made a welcome late change in adding Elizabeth Mitchell as Charlie’s mother, who we are told is dead but who, spoiler alert, is played by Elizabeth Mitchell. And Zak Orth brings a dryly funny, Lostian spark to the role of co-quester and former Google nerd Aaron.
But these are all supporting roles, and the first hour of Revolution is a kind of TV bialy, very, very flat in the center. I would be hard-pressed to describe Danny’s character beyond “has asthma, nice shirt.” As Charlie, Spiridakos never manages to be more than blandly purposeful, as if she’s been coached to pose in a Hunger Games-inspired photo shoot. Her uncle Miles (Billy Burke), the possible key to unraveling the mystery blackout, is so far a brooding question mark, who speaks more like an expository device than a person. The emotional scenes between him and Charlie feel perfunctory, a letdown coming from the likes of producers J.J. Abrams (Lost) and Eric Kripke (Supernatural).
It’s all far from terrible, but there are few gasps, goosebumps or laugh-out-loud moments—the sort of things that convert wanting to like an ambitious show into actually liking it for itself. Revolution has promise. It has crossbows and swordplay. It has a lot of room for world-building and stories that could sustain for seasons.
What it still needs is that magic that makes you thrill and care about characters whom you feel you know as distinctive people. For lack of a better word, I’ll call that: electricity.
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