In the narration that begins most episodes of “Revolution,” the hit NBC drama about a future dystopia where electricity has ceased to function, the show’s hero Miles Matheson (Billy Burke) tells the audience, “We still don’t know why the power went out, but we’re hopeful that someone will come and light the way.”
The recent power outage at NBC is much easier to diagnose. In the fall, the network – a joke for most of the 21st Century – was shockingly the highest-rated of all broadcasters, thanks almost entirely to three shows: “Revolution,” “The Voice” and “Sunday Night Football.” The first two haven’t been on the air since late November, and NBC last aired an NFL game in early January. In the months since, it’s back to the usual calamity for the network, which has endured one disastrous mid-season launch after another, whether a new show like “Do No Harm” premiering to record-low ratings or a returning pet project like “Smash” putting the “bomb” into show-within-the-show “Bombshell.” Shows like “Go On” that had seemed like at least modest successes in the fall cratered once “The Voice” wasn’t there to funnel in viewers. In February, the network finished fifth, behind Univision. Last week’s season finale of “Deception,” the lethargic drama that filled in for “Revolution” the last few months, finished seventh in its timeslot, behind not only CBS and ABC, but MTV, ESPN, A&E and USA.
When your success is built on the back of three shows that can’t air throughout the entire season, you’re going to stumble when all three are gone at once, but this January-March stretch has felt like end times at the Peacock, and football won’t be coming to the rescue until the fall.
In the meantime, though, “The Voice” is back tonight at 8 (with Usher and Shakira filling in for Cee-Lo and Christina as coaches this time around), and “Revolution” at 10, and NBC hopes they’ll light the way out of this latest mess. Big reality hits like “The Voice” have a pretty good track record for coming back strong after long absences. A scripted drama taking a four-month break in mid-season is a bit dicier. In recent years, both ABC’s “FlashForward” and NBC’s “The Event” – high-concept science fiction dramas themselves – took similar breaks in their first years, and stumbled so badly that neither was renewed for a second. Of course, both of those had already faded significantly after promising debuts – and were experiencing behind-the-scenes turmoil and creative reshuffling – where “Revolution” was still a success for NBC around Thanksgiving, and is still being guided by creator Eric Kripke along the path he set in the fall. Those other shows went away because they needed fixing; “Revolution” went away because NBC didn’t want to air it without “The Voice” as a lead-in.
Now it’s back, along with “The Voice,” and unless Cee-Lo (and/or his pet cockatoo Lady Bird) was responsible for all those “Voice” viewers, “Revolution” should still have a strong foundation to build on.
I’m just hoping it becomes a better show already.
In its fall episodes, “Revolution” had certain assets: the performances by Burke as Marine veteran Miles and Giancarlo Esposito as insurance adjuster turned killer Tom Neville; a good command of its action scenes; and the occasional glimpse of what life was like in the global blackout’s immediate aftermath. But the narrative was set 15 years later, in a less interesting world (and/or one that was easier to recreate on a TV budget), and too much of the focus went to the cast’s weaker links: Tracy Spiridakos and Graham Rogers as Miles’ teenage niece and nephew Charlie and Danny.
It was never a bad series, but at best it felt like competent genre fiction, just good enough to hold onto viewers given the intriguing premise and the huge lead-in. But I’ve heard from many fans of Kripke’s previous series, the CW’s “Supernatural,” that it got significantly deeper and stronger as it went along, and wanted to see what Kripke had planned for the start of the season’s second half.
The episode, titled “The Stand,” is in some ways a departure from what came before. The bad guy, dictator Sebastian Monroe (David Lyons) now has a gizmo that will offer localized power for a couple of helicopters, which he uses to attack the rebellion that wants to say they still live in America. And Charlie and Danny’s mother Rachel (Elizabeth Mitchell) – who knows all about what caused the blackout – has been reunited with her family, which should in theory provide answers much sooner than we usually get on this type of mythology-driven show.
But that doesn’t happen in “The Stand,” where Mitchell gets to essentially reprise her role from “Lost” as the woman who knows everything but keeps putting people off when they ask questions, because the time isn’t right. Instead, much of the episode is spent on action, and on trying to make the audience invest in the Matheson family’s bonds pre- and post-blackout.
And it turns out that a show that did so well with action when the characters were often fighting with swords or muskets is less on the ball when assault helicopters and machine guns are being used. The cliffhanger from the last November episode is resolved in clumsy, abrupt fashion, and later action sequences mainly feel like someone in production realized how much they were spending on helicopters and wanted to get their money’s worth, no matter what.
As for the family drama, something happens late in the episode that’s promising for the show going forward, but most of the hour is a reminder of how relatively thin the “Revolution” characters are. We’ve gotten some insight into these people from the flashback sequences, but most of what makes them resonate tends to come from what the actors are doing, which means mainly Burke and Esposito. They’re all still largely types: the headstrong heroine (Charlie), the aloof, deluded villain (Monroe), the nerd in a violent world (Zak Orth’s Aaron), etc.
“The Event” and “FlashForward” both opened to big numbers because there’s still an appetite for flashy, high-concept drama – for a show to pick up the torch of “Lost.” (“Lost” co-creator J.J. Abrams is a credited producer on “Revolution,” but Kripke is the hands-on guy.) They failed in part because their stories didn’t make any sense, but mainly because they didn’t offer the audience any three-dimensional characters to care about no matter how confusing the plot became.
“Revolution” has yet to become nearly as convoluted as either of those, but it could really stand to focus on how it writes for the people in this power-less world – especially if NBC ever wants to be able to air it all season, without “The Voice” as its safety net.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org