Every now and then, when I watch my kids fight over who gets to control the iPad, or go to a ballgame or restaurant where everyone’s nose is glued to their smartphone, I ponder what it would be like to live in a simpler time where we didn’t have the flashiest toys but also didn’t feel so dependent on them. Of course, then I realize that my particular skill set would be useless in such a time and I go back to happily playing Words With Friends.
“Revolution,” the new NBC drama that premieres Monday night at 10, finds a particularly rough way to force its characters to stop (texting) and smell the roses: a few minutes into the first episode, all the electricity in the world stops working. It’s not just a blackout – a laptop battery is just as useless as one that’s plugged in – and because it happens so suddenly, a whole lot of people die within minutes. (It’s a bad time, for instance, to be on an airplane.)
“Physics went insane, the world went insane over night, and nobody knows why,” complains Aaron (Zak Orth), who worked for Google before the blackout and is doing his best to not be redundant in this brave new/old world.
The bulk of “Revolution” takes place 15 years after the lights went out for good, and we see that the people who survived the blackout and its immediate aftermath have gone back to nature. Cars are only useful as oversized planters, and all activity is done by either sun or candle light. Guns still work, but most of those were quickly gathered up by the various militias that took advantage of the chaos to carve out little fiefdoms across America. When Giancarlo Esposito (Gus Fring from “Breaking Bad”) rides up on horseback as the tax-collecting enforcer for a local warlord, he’s Darth Vader by way of the Sheriff of Nottingham.
A “Star Wars” analogy also proves apt for the show’s reluctant hero, ex-soldier Miles Matheson (Billy Burke), who’s the Han Solo of this particular saga: gruff, sarcastic, and someone who’d rather avoid everyone else’s drama. (Because technology is so limited, he’s a Han Solo who’s good at killing people with a sword, too.) Instead, he gets sucked into a quest involving his niece Charlie (Tracy Spiridakos), nephew Danny (Graham Rogers) and whatever their father Ben (Tim Guinee) knew about the blackout.
“Revolution” was created by Eric Kripke from “Supernatural,” has a pilot directed by Jon Favreau and is also produced by J.J. Abrams. That is a whole lot of creative power directed towards what is, in the pilot at least, a fairly low-wattage result.
Though flashbacks promise to reveal some of what went on right after the blackout, that feels like a much more interesting (if more complicated/expensive to produce) setting than the overgrown agrarian world of 15 years later. And though Esposito and Burke are both excellent – and Kripke and Favreau stage a classic swashbuckling swordfight for Miles that’s easily the highlight of the first hour – far too much time is spent on the boring (Charlie) or annoying (Danny) teenagers, once again trying to force youth appeal into a show without bothering to generate characters that viewers of any age will actually care about watching. (See also “Terra Nova,” “Smash,” “V,” “The Walking Dead,” or even back to Kim Bauer on “24.”)
There are some obvious echoes of “Lost” (which Abrams co-created), and of the many half-baked “Lost” imitators that failed quickly in the years since. Aaron is very much the Hurley figure, and there are already plenty of cryptic clues about what happened with the power and whether it can already be turned back on. The problem is that “Lost” (and before it, “X-Files”) pretty clearly demonstrated that mythology on a sci-fi series like this becomes more trouble than it’s worth, and that if the other parts – the characters in particular, but also the storytelling that has nothing to do with presenting and solving mysteries – aren’t any good, then the mythology sure won’t be worth it on its own.
Esposito and Burke are good enough that I’ll watch a bit longer just for them, but that’s about all I took out of the pilot, character-wise. And though the swordfight is very cool, it – and some of the more haunting post-apocalyptic imagery (like Wrigley Field overrun with ivy) – feels like the kind of thing that will be downplayed once the series is working on a regular budget and schedule. (TV shows virtually always look more expensive in their pilot episodes than they ever do after.)
I can see the pluses and (mostly) minuses of living in a world without electricity, just as I can see why these three men thought it would be fun to come together to tell the story of that world. But they haven’t done enough with it to make me instantly pull my nose up from my phone whenever the next episode starts.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org