Somewhere in the budget for Revolution, NBC’s new sci-fi drama premiering tonight at 10/9c, there must be a stand-alone line item for fake ivy. Some big number to pay for all the green stuff that’s spiraling in and out of what feels like nearly every frame. All that ivy is just one of the ways you’re constantly reminded that producer J.J. Abrams and his production company, Bad Robot, are again going high concept with their latest series. Revolution takes place in a post-apocalyptic future, some 15 years after a worldwide blackout plunged humanity into technological darkness. Whatever caused the blackout fried everything, not just electrical and telecommunication grids but also car batteries, flash lights and all manner of things we as a species take for granted. At the pilot’s opening, we glimpse the event itself through the eyes of two brothers, Ben and Miles Matheson. Miles (Billy Burke) is a military man on the road with a soldier friend when all the cars on the highway stop running. Meanwhile, Ben (Tim Guinee) knows the power’s going out minutes before it happens and rushes to hide some important bit of data on a flash drive before everything shuts down.
After this little bit of setup, we jump a decade and a half into the future, where that damn ivy covers everything and Ben’s living the peaceful life with his now grown children in a little idyllic farming community. (Probably a lot of those around by this point, huh?) But the good times don’t last long. Somebody obviously remembers watching The Postman pre-blackout, and before long the community is invaded by a group of militia badasses with brands on their arms who are looking for the Matheson brothers. And you know they mean business because Giancarlo Esposito, better known as Gus Fring from Breaking Bad, is leading them. A fight breaks out and Ben, who early on looks to be Revolution‘s lead character, is shot dead. (Shades of what Abrams and company wanted to do with Lost back when Jack was supposed to be killed off at the end of that show’s pilot.) His son, Danny (Graham Rogers) is captured by the militia. Meanwhile, daughter Charlie (Tracy Spiridakos) bolts for Chicago to find Uncle Miles, who she doesn’t even remember.
So that’s the setup. Revolution wears its post-apocalyptic influences on its sleeve, and if you watch, don’t expect to see some blindingly original take on the concept. Hell, much of it looks a lot like TNT’s aliens-attack series Falling Skies, right down to the nearly identical staticky title screen. But whereas that series is content to uses the genre to tell a pretty straight-forward, character-based action tale, Revolution weighs itself down with Abrams’ brand of plot twists, MacGuffins and off-screen mysteries. By the time the first hour has ended, it’s already been revealed that one character is not who we think he is, another turns out to be someone we may not have guessed, and yet another is secretly communicating with some unseen person or persons via what is perhaps the only working computer in the United States. It’s a lot of sleight of hand, and while some of it is marginally clever — I did like reveal at the end involving Monroe, the warlord in charge of the militia — it often gets in the way of a viewer establishing a connection with these characters.
Also not helping is the fact that few of these characters are compelling or strongly acted. I do like Burke as Miles, who is found by his niece in the episode’s second half and who turns out to be a karate-chopping killing machine. Burke is most known for pulling down a regular paycheck playing Kristen Stewart’s dad in the Twilight films, but he’s done quite a bit of TV work, including a second-season arc on 24. His mug may just be grizzled enough to make Miles an action hero worth rooting for. But Revolution, which sprung from the brain of Supernatural creator Eric Kripke, doesn’t surround him with much. Spiridakos is a blank but pretty slate done no favors by the little love story shoehorned into the pilot to cater to the Twilight/Hunger Games crowd. There’s also pudgy ex-millionaire Aaron (Zak Orth) who’s still trying to find his way in the new world. He’s also half-responsible for the pilot’s biggest groaner. “I used to work at this place called Google,” he says at one point. “That was a computer thing, right?” Charlie responds. If you haven’t guessed already, Aaron is basically Revolution‘s version of Hurley, perhaps with a little Arnst thrown in for good measure.
Based on his past work, I’m guessing Esposito can be great as the insurance-adjuster-turned-mercenary, but in the pilot, at least, I wasn’t as threatened, wowed or entertained by him as I hoped I would be. That’s partially due to the weaker writing here, but it could also be that seeing him play someone who’s not Gus, who’s more verbose and speaks with a different accent, creates a kind of strange discordance. Certainly that’s not fair to Esposito, but that’s the peril of being known for such an iconic role, I suppose.
There’s also some lazy plotting here by Kripke, who wrote the pilot. Did the militia really need to chain Danny to the one metal bar held fastened by a single loose screw? Maybe basic maintenance and security went downhill fast once all the drills and electric screwdrivers stopped working. Or maybe Kripke needed an easy way for Danny to escape. The episode was helmed by Iron Man director Jon Favreau, who’s also a producer on the series, and he does well enough with a TV-sized budget, although some of the jumps from wide green-screen shots to smaller sets are a bit too obvious.
Long story short, Revolution just doesn’t do enough to distinguish itself from the flood of similar shows that have come and gone in the wake of Lost. There’s nothing in the pilot that’s significantly better or more original that what we’ve seen in other post-apocalyptic series like Falling Skies or Jericho. And, at this point, the series’ central mysteries — who turned off the lights and why? and what’s on the flash drive? — don’t figure to be any more compelling than those offered by FlashForward or Alcatraz or any number of recent would-be mind-benders. My advice would be to develop and strengthen the characters first and then dive into everybody’s deep dark secrets. But it doesn’t seem like Revolution wants to wait around getting to the latter.
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