by John Johnson
Revolution is NBC’s latest attempt to capitalize on the HYPERLINK http://truestword.blogspot.com/2012/09/lost-battlestar-jericho.htmlsurvival-drama craze. Seven years ago, they mounted the series, Surface, starring Lake Bell, which only saw one season of production. It was a half-hearted response to the runaway success of ABC’s Lost that suffered from a concerted lack of story-telling vision both on the page and behind the camera. Revolution overcomes both of these hurdles…mostly. It’s a competent series that shows some promise to actually engage, but feels hampered by a traditional broadcast storytelling model.
Revolution starts with a really terrific sequence set in the present. Ben Matheson (The Good Wife‘s stay-at-home-dad/investigator Tim Guinee) rushes home to his wife Rachel (Lost‘s Elizabeth Mitchell) and their two young children, Charlie and Danny. He tells Rachel that “It’s coming,” and proceeds to download something to a USB thumb drive, which he then hides in a lavaliere. Within moments, the lights go out all over the world. Series creator Eric Kripke gives good teaser; he mastered the practice running The CW’s Supernatural for its superior first five years. The visuals are striking here as well, including some haunting images of airplanes. The pilot is helmed by Iron Man director Jon Favreau, and the series in under the executive producer shingle of J.J. Abrams (Star Trek). You can feel their assured hands in every frame of the episode.
After the teaser, the action shifts to fifteen years in the future, where a new society has been formed–a society without electricity, without technology and without power. Now, things get a little wobbly. Ben and Rachel’s daughter Charlie and son Danny are brought to forefront of the story. She is an excellent archer and he has stolen all of Peeta’s hair dye. The two are quickly split up, and it’s obvious that their respective drives to reunion will be the immediate focus of the series. This is unfortunate, as I can say they are the only two characters in which I am not vested in the least. Tracy Spiridakos’ Charlie is scripted to be headstrong and daring; instead she comes off as petulant and dumb. Graham Rogers’ Danny isn’t as much a dramatic black hole, but he’s far too earnest in a series that should smack a bit more of cynicism.
It was a smart choice to set the series in the future by fifteen years, as that seems a legitimate enough time for society to have established a new normal. For Revolution, centralized government is a thing of the past and now despotic militias rule territories. This is meant to invoke the Revolutionary War–I think. There is no indication in the pilot’s script that they are working under any great allegory here, just that they are trying to tell a fun, Hunger Games-esque adventure story. I get that allegory in general is a tough thing to maintain over a long run of episodes–even my beloved Battlestar Galactica suffered when they first expanded to twenty episodes a season (Apollo solving crimes).
The broadcast network model has not been kind to sci-fi series that shy away from a sustaining allegory. By softening the edges of the allegory, the entire premise is dulled as well. It’s possible that the show could give itself over entirely to the broadcast model of narrative drive: a serialized, plot-driven show, where nothing of consequence really happens or changes. That’s what happened with CBS’ Jericho back in the day and frankly this show reminds me of that show far too often.
That’s really the core issue here; the show feels too “broadcast.” Everything’s softer, sunnier, and more palatable to a mainstream audience. The fight scenes are well choreographed, but the blood sprays are barely detectable CGI mists. The “adult” cast is very engaging, including a crackerjack performance by Zak Orth as a former Google millionaire, but there’s also a difficult, shoehorned star-crossed lovers bit. Perhaps most egregious of all is that no one is allowed to be just a minor character, a one and done. They replaced the original mother, Andrea Roth, with Elizabeth Mitchell and then only give her four lines of dialogue. They seriously don’t expect us to believe that they are going to bring in one of sci-fi’s most celebrated actresses for a handful of lines. But that character’s just the first of at least four minor characters that are destined for greater things. This television production trope, necessitated by fiscal as well as clarity reasons, is very tired, and makes Revolution feel a lot more like Terra Nova, rather than The Walking Dead or even Falling Skies.
Will I continue to watch? For a bit. It has a great time slot with no other shows competing for my attention, though I could see using that time to clear out the Sunday night DVR backlog when the season starts in earnest. I also think Kripke is very good; when Supernatural was firing on all cylinders it was better than Lost. I like a lot of the adult cast, including Giancarlo Esposito (Breaking Bad, Once Upon a Time) and a surprisingly effective Billy Burke (the Twilight movies, The Closer). I find the premise fascinating, but only time will tell if the execution will step up and serve the potential or the network.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Revolution will air on Monday nights at 10:00 on NBC. The pilot episode is available for viewing OnDemand and online.