"Chained Heat" was one of the most eagerly anticipated episodes of television in this young season in my household, because second episodes of serialized sci-fi shows can be the most telling indicator of quality and competence. With high-concept shows, many pilots can get away with asking the same question over and over again; in Revolution's case, that question was, "Who turned out da lightz?" But it's the second episode that tells us what to expect each week and gets us comfortable with the characters. Well, the power isn't the only thing that isn't working in Revolution.
"Chained Heat" failed most tests as a second episode, staying roughly in line with the quality of the inept pilot and really defining this show as a modern-day ham radio adventure tale—or, for you more modern folk, an 80-plus-hour role-playing video game. And as anyone who's ever huddled around a speaker in the 1940s or played Skyrim for
hours days on end knows, that means fetch quest after fetch quest after fetch quest. Go talk to this guy, go get this thing, go help out this villager who has been waiting impatiently for someone to come along and accept a mission. Yes, there are fights along the way, but even those become a bit of a drag, particularly when the outcome is so predictable (Miles will kill a bunch of people). It equates to a bunch of busy work, and while there's some sense of accomplishment in doing it yourself (Xbox achievements!), watching someone else play a video game is very low on the list of things I enjoy. That's what watching Revolution feels like at the moment.
This week, Miles' quest (which means it's Charlie's quest, too) was to add to the adventurers' party by finding Norah, someone Miles believes can help them find Charlie's kidnapped brother Danny (finding people to find people is apparently going to be a theme of the series). Despite traveling in the Illinois wilderness with no GPS, they located her rather easily as a prisoner in a yellow-tank-top chain-gang that was dragging a helicopter with all the fake exertion the extras' faces could muster. And thank God the only yellow tank top left for Norah happened to size XS, right fellas? Miles and Charlie sprung her—again, rather easily—but Norah wasn't ready to leave until she got what she was there for: a gun that she could sell on the black market (or give to the resistance). This didn't give us a real sense of story as far as "Hey we're watching a television show" goes, it just gave the show's characters something to do.
Which led to one of Revolution's action scenes in which the bad guys take an ass-kicking and pile up casualties by attacking one person at a time and the good guys suffer barely a scratch. Dear readers, we need to talk about these action scenes. I'm into the land-pirates thing, where swords are swashed and buckled and some of the guns require a gunpowder cram before firing. But the fights so far have been boooooring, and they're taking away the purpose of having a sharpened blade in the first place. No matter how many twirls and no-look slicing Miles does, I just can't get into the action because they're more ballet-like and less visceral than what swords deserve. Quick question: Would you rather be shot in the arm or sworded (fake word!) in the arm? Answer: shot, because there's a good chance you'll be able to do something with that arm again. If a dude comes down full force on your arm with a sword, the last thing you'll do with that arm is carry it to the garbage can and throw it in, because that sucker's coming off. That kind of violence needs to be on display in Revolution if I'm going to take these sword fights seriously. Can we get a blood spray or a limb falling to the ground? The show has no problem with blood when guns are involved, but all these swords do is make stuntmen flail sharply in the other direction. I know, broadcast television and all, but this is a 10pm show and if The Empire Strikes Back can show Luke's hand getting cut off (whoops, spoiler alert!), then Revolution can lose a limb here and there. I'm probably in the minority here, but try re-watching one of Revolution's fights when you have a moment. A good action sequence should still be exhilarating on multiple viewings. Repeated views of Revolution's fights are not.
Neville remains the best character on the show thus far, partly because Giancarlo Esposito is the only one with charisma and partly by default because the other characters are tiring chores. "Chained Heat" attempted to give Charlie a little more bite (they couldn't have given her less in the pilot), but only managed to pull off "meddling tag-along teenager." It was an improvement, and Charlie blowing away the warden with the sleeve gun was admittedly the badass moment of the episode, but she still has a long way to go before I think of her as anything more than a face that belongs in a makeup commercial. Miles remained on-course to be this season's half-written primetime rebel, but did some positive growing with feelings of familial responsibility. Danny, well, he's just there to look like a puppy. It's like he wasn't even on-set with everyone else, thanks to all those cuts to him staring blankly and saying nothing (seriously, I think all his bits were re-shot with him in front of a green screen). Aaron is Aaron and will always be Aaron. Oddly enough, it was ice queen Maggie who was humanized the most this week, with her memories of her children held prisoner by a drained iPhone. Team Maggie all the way.
We also saw that Revolution isn't shying away from the flashbacks to the early days of the outage, and that's both a good and a bad thing because it shows what Revolution can do and also what it isn't doing most of the time. The flashbacks are much more interesting than the "present-day" storytelling because the sense of danger is plain and close. Those days look a whole lot worse (and therefore interesting) than a decade-and-a-half later. That scene where that creepazoid grabbed young Charlie and threatened to smash her face in? That was the tensest situation in the entire series so far and made me want to spend more time in the freshness of post-energy anarchy than the Frontierland of 15 years later. It's not a good sign when the appetizers are better than the entree.
As for the big reveals and steps toward solving the grand mystery, so far it's just the typical trickling-out of barely relevant details. We learned that the computer girl is named Grace and saw some headless guy named Randall creep up to her and get his zap-stick ready, but it was so out of context we had nothing to actually process. Yes, he's probably a bad person, but without knowing why Grace has the computer, what it's used for, or even who she is, it all becomes a home invasion aside that didn't fit in with the rest of the episode. We also discovered that Rachel (Elizabeth Mitchell) is alive! Not entirely surprising because who in their right mind would limit the wonderful Mitchell to flashback duty? But what was surprising was how much the writers changed her situation. In the original pilot, which wasn't screened for the public, Rachel—then played by Andrea Roth—appeared in the final scene with her arms draped around Monroe like they were more-than-friends. Here, she was a prisoner and even attempted to Joe-Pesci-from Casino the bad guy, a total 180 from the original pilot. I'm guessing the character change had a lot to do with the recasting, because for the life of me I can't imagine Mitchell playing anyone but a sympathetic character and not a two-timing traitor. And if you're really into details, Aaron thinks the whole power outage was manmade. Yeah, we figured.
But what is really dragging Revolution down is the thing that was most interesting when the idea was pitched. The world isn't as interesting as we thought it would be, and it's full of inconsistencies. Why is Monroe staying in a defenseless camp of cloth tents while he keeps Rachel prisoner in a mansion? How is everything blown back to the Stone Age except for fashion? Why do the guns stay silent during the show's sword fights?
Revolution is being compared to The Event, FlashForward, and Terra Nova, which is partially accurate because they all share the same DNA. But The Event was misguided and made things up as it went along (with hilarious results), FlashForward was way too ambitious and collapsed on itself, and Terra Nova was just plain bad. None of those descriptions really apply to Revolution, which has its own problems. It's just not interesting (yet) and it doesn't have a sense of direction. Right now I don't see hope for it to improve.
– What was the real point of C. Thomas Howell's bounty hunter? Just to add color and give Miles the general location of Norah? And why did he run away from a handcuffed Miles after showing no fear of him in their earlier swordfight? And why did the goons release Charlie and Maggie just because Miles said to do so right before he gave up? Shouldn't those orders come from C. Thomas Howell? And is anyone else already over this C. Thomas Howell career comeback?
– Miles: "That's Norah. The hot busty one in the tight tank top."
– The most unbelievable thing in this whole show? Trying to pass off the idea that young Charlie would grow up to be older Charlie.
– Probably not a good idea to have a close-up shot of a deer carcass if it looks fake even from not close up.
– I'm not a huge fan of cutting off a conversation in the middle for dramatic effect. When Charlie asked "Nate" why he saved her, I wanted a damn answer, not a cut away to the next scene.
– Did Danny puff up a bit in between the pilot and this episode?
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom