Pilot Review: Revolution

Before writing this review, I took an informal survey of the contents of my apartment. At the present time, I have no fewer than 20 electronic devices in my apartment: two iPhones (one work, one home), an iPod, an iPad, a flatscreen TV, an Xbox 360, a wireless router, a netbook, an iMac, two external hard drives, a microwave oven, an electric razor, six lamps, and all the attendant chargers and plugs that go along with those devices. Between work and home, I spend approximately 90 percent of my waking hours in front of these devices, in either direct or unconscious interaction. Were these devices to stop working for a little while, I’d be drastically inconvenienced. Were they to shut down for good, I’d be good as dead.

As such, I’m more than a little engaged by NBC’s Revolution, which creates a world in which the latter circumstance has come to pass. All technology has vanished, leaving a world that’s grown isolated and agrarian, our sense of global connectivity stripped away in favor of independent warlords and republics. It’s a bold concept for a show, one that seems ripe with possibilities for new and interesting stories and world-building, particularly given the pedigree of its showrunners: Eric Kripke of Supernatural, J.J. Abrams of Lost and Fringe, Jon Favreau of Iron Man. But after viewing the pilot, I’m not convinced—and more than a little concerned—by the story they’ve chosen to tell, which seems to me to be wasting the show’s potential.

Revolution opens only minutes before the collapse comes, illustrated through the frantic efforts of Ben Matheson (Tim Guinee) who returns to his Chicago suburban home in a panic, urging his wife Rachel (Elizabeth Mitchell) to fill tubs and pitchers with water (shades of The Road). He places a frantic call to his brother Miles (Billy Burke) to warn him: “It’s all gonna turn off. It’s gonna turn off and it will never turn back on.” True to word, within seconds display screens short out and go to black, car headlights turn off like falling dominoes, and planes peppered in blinking lights fall from the sky en masse, their booming explosions the only noise in a world rendered silent. It’s an arresting, eye-catching opener, and more than a little unsettling in how it illustrates the fragility of our interconnected lives.

The show then fast-forwards 15 years, after the event known as “the Blackout” threw the entire world into anarchy. In the years since humanity has adopted more of a regional approach, abandoning the major cities to nature for the most part and moving into small villages governed by groups known as militias. Unlike a Falling Skies, where the details of the world that was lost were still fresh in everyone’s minds, this story progresses far enough that the world before it is reduced to ruins, and a generation is born and growing up where technology is indistinguishable from magic in that both exist only as hypotheticals. Favreau, who directed the pilot, does a terrific job of showing us the world as it stands now: broken levees and flooded streets, deer roaming through a desolate downtown, church steeples poking up in the middle of new lakes. It creates a blank slate for Kripke and company to play with, a world influenced by the one that came before but that’s something entirely separate.

Unfortunately, that’s not the scope they seem to be taking with the show. The main narrative of the pilot fixates back on Ben Matheson, who is arrested by a detachment of the local militia headed by Captain Tom Neville (Giancarlo Esposito). When Ben’s son Danny (Graham Rogers) tries to fight back, Ben is killed and Danny taken in his place. Danny’s sister Charlie (Tracy Spiridakos), acting on her father’s dying words, heads to Chicago to find Miles for help in getting her brother back, in the company of her father’s girlfriend Maggie (Anna Lise Phillips) and best friend Aaron (Zak Orth).

Again, that’s not inherently a bad focus for a show, even if the search for a missing teenage son tends to be a weak justification for a narrative (Falling Skies in its early episodes being a prime example). The problem here is that the search for Danny almost immediately turns into the issue of Ben’s involvement in the Blackout, the obsession of the Monroe Republic’s leader General Sebastian Monroe (David Lyons) in turning it back on, and the mysterious silver USB amulet Ben passed to Aaron before he died. A reveal in the last few minutes further complicates the situation, as we learn there’s more than one of these amulets and there appears to be something of a network associated with them, right down to a fully functional computer in the attic of a former algebra teacher.

This sabotages the show’s atmospheric setting almost immediately, converting it into a mythology-centric show and opening it up immediately into comparisons of being another attempt to recapture the Lost energy in the vein of Flash Forward, The Event or Terra Nova. These sort of comparisons were probably inevitable given the long track record of failure for these projects, but the problem with those shows wasn’t only that they botched giving answers but that they didn’t tell interesting stories or give viewers a reason to care about the characters at the center of the action.

And the characters they’ve provided us aren’t exactly the cream of the crop. The most interesting one is Aaron, whose gradual revelations about his past (a former Google executive with $80 million in the bank and a private jet) spell out a character whose adjustment to this new world hasn’t come without significant pain. Charlie, who’s ostensibly the central character, comes across as very bland—nothing against Spiridakos’ performance per se, but in the early going with her bow, leather jacket and stubborn family dedication. Charlie serves only as a textbook example of trying to cash in on the popularity of The Hunger Games (what I’ve dubbed “Katnissing”). Maggie has an interesting skill set but weakly defined connections to the group, and the less said about the sulky irritant of Graham Rogers the better—between this and the disaster of V, perhaps Elizabeth Mitchell just shouldn’t be allowed to play the mother of teenage sons on television.

It’s not without its bright spots though, chiefly thanks to the inclusion of Esposito, who created one of the most arresting villains of the last decade as Breaking Bad’s Gustavo Fring. Neville, like Gus, is a figure less terrifying in his actions than in his bearing, someone who doesn’t get mad but gets even with a ruthless efficiency. Paired with a Desert Eagle, some small gold sunglasses and a light Southern accent (able to turn most any sentence into a threat), he’s unsurprisingly a commanding presence from the start, and the show would be wise to increase it. (And I’m even happier to see him freed from Once Upon A Time, where the waste of his potential made me physically angry at one point.)

The other promising element is Miles. Burke’s well cast as a reluctant hero with the appropriate cynicism and world-weariness, but more to the point he’s very convincing as a badass. “We don’t want to hurt you,” says militia scout Nate (J.D. Pardo) when a full militia squad comes to claim him. “I don’t want to hurt them,” Miles replies wearily, which leads to the best action scene of the pilot as through a combination of swordplay, strategically placed crossbows and environmental attacks, he manages to eliminate over a dozen men in the span of three minutes. Charlie says early he’s good at killing, and quite bluntly he’s a human weapon (a term I’m reclaiming from Timothy Blake Nelson’s character on CBS’s long-forgotten Chaos). If the show’s going to include weekly ass-kicking as Favreau promised at the Television Critics Association press tour a few months back, he’s certainly the best engine for it, and the first meeting between Miles and Neville is sure to be appointment TV.

And despite its rough start, there’s still room for Revolution as a whole to turn into appointment TV if it can figure out how to tell a story without asking big questions about the Blackout. This is a high-concept show but it’s still better concept than what powered most of the shows lumped into the “next Lost” category, and given the track record of the involved parties I’m not abandoning hope this early. But if it doesn’t heed the lessons of its predecessors, I’m almost certain it’ll be heading for its own blackout territory.

Stray observations:

  • As a reminder, I’ll be reviewing the show on a weekly basis over at The A.V. Club. You can find Todd VanDerWerff’s review of the pilot and my second opinion here.
  • In addition to narrative concerns, I can’t say I’m sold by the title. Kripke and company have claimed it’s to do with the ragtag band of heroes fighting against the Monroe Republic, but the impression I’ve gotten is that the republic’s only one of many. Hopefully they’ll make it more apparent in future episodes.
  • Speaking of said republic, not too much of a glimpse of General Monroe himself, other than his camp and tent that appears to have been borrowed from Renly Baratheon. We’ll see what kind of character he turns into, but given Lyons’ performance on THE CAPE confidence isn’t high.
  • In the opening scene Miles and Monroe are heading back to their base in a red Dodge Challenger. They must have the same car salesman as Walter Jr.
  • As much as I like the imagery of the broken St. Louis Arch and collapsed Golden Gate Bridge, I’m not exactly sure how the power going out causes that much architectural damage.
  • Charlie’s skepticism of Aaron’s survival skills and desire to join the search for Danny leads to one of the show’s better interactions: “You’re afraid of bees!” “I’m not afraid of bees! I’m allergic to bees, there’s a difference.” “Well, it’s your funeral.” “Probably, yes.”
  • Neville reveals he was an insurance adjuster before the Blackout. “Most of my job centered around finding out what people said centered around the truth. Lucky for me, it’s a skill that never goes out of style.”
  • Miles offers Charlie some advice I hope the show follows: “Kid, if I’m coming with you you’re gonna have to dial it back a notch.”

About Les Chappell

The Mad Hatter of media criticism. Co-founder of This Was Television, contributor to The A.V. Club, founder of A Helpless Compiler and The Lesser of Two Equals.
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