Revolution Series Premiere Review: Powerless to Resist

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Revolution S01E01: "Pilot"

Here we go again. A high-concept sci-fi television drama with big names attached to it comes along, and we'd murder a puppy to shorten the wait to see it. Then we finally see the pilot and we feel awfully guilty about what we did to Mr. Cuddles, because it wasn't worth it. We're a smarter audience than we used to be, but we are still stupid enough to put way too much belief into network serialized science-fiction shows and forget the lessons of FlashForward, The Event, and Alcatraz.

When Revolution, from Lost producer J.J. Abrams and Supernatural creator Eric Kripke, was first announced, we fell back into the arms of hope, our thoughts devoted to great sci-fi shows like Alphas and Fringe instead of to the meteor that crushed our expectations, Terra Nova and those that came before it.

But I'm going to go ahead and fall into the same damn traps I've sworn to avoid and hold out hope for Revolution, knowing full well that history and common sense aren't on my side. This isn't a good review of the pilot. In fact, I think the pilot was pretty terrible on most accounts. But I'm putting a lot of faith in Kripke, who delivered one of the best three-season stretches of television in the last decade with Supernatural's third, fourth, and fifth seasons. He gave me three seasons of amazing television, I can at least give him a few episodes to prove himself once again.

Revolution boasts an interesting concept that's easy to latch on to. Due to some bizarre mess that will be the series' key mystery, technology has up and bricked itself, and electricity, batteries, car starters, jet engines, and anything else that isn't person-powered failed. This is all set up in a spectacular opening scene where a quiet evening with the kids playing on their iPads and watching Bugs Bunny cartoons is interrupted by cars clunking out, the skyline of Chicago going dark, and commercial jets spiraling to the ground in an explosive heap, like poorly made paper airplanes folded on the short bus. (By the way, planes wouldn't crash like that if they lost power.)

But Revolution takes place 15 years AFTER the "blackout," in a society that's been rebuilt on horse-drawn buggies (literally, half of a Volkswagen Bug is dragged by horse), bathtub mojitos, and farm-fresh veggies. And this is where Revolution both excels and betrays itself. Here's a world that's unique. It's post-apocalyptic but with the absence of technology, creating a vibe that's part swashbuckling adventure, part dusty Western, and part almost Steampunk. That setting is a welcome invader to a TV landscape full of detective offices, two-story suburban homes, and talent-show stages—point, Revolution. But that same world posits a lot of questions because the details just aren't there, resulting in a world that looks fake. Why does everyone look like they're wearing fresh pajamas and not tattered clothes? Why are some structures littered in ruin while others are sparklingly pristine? How, after 15 years, do things still look like the world's longest-running Renaissance Faire and not a world that's starting over?

As many pilots do, Revolution's tried to do too much in its opening hour and each aspect (setting, character, story) cannibalized the others. I actually really like the general look of Revolution; for an after-apocalypse show, it's incredibly lush and vibrant with color, as opposed to the typical dark and gloomy. But the visuals only raise more questions that the pilot didn't have time to answer. And these aren't big questions, these are the basics. Sorry, but I really want to know how stupid things like currency, government, property ownership, and that stuff works. And though I'm prepared to wait for those answers, the cartoonish quality of some aspects of life without technology (our first look at town life of course included two men in a street brawl while others paid then no mind) makes Revolution look, at times, like the next addition to Disney World, stashed somewhere between Frontierland and Tomorrowland.

Characters are also off to a slow start; again, this is a result of the show trying to cover too much too soon. The heroine, Charlie (Being Human's Tracy Spiridakos), isn't a chore to look at, with gorgeous big blue eyes and lips more succulent than swollen gummi worms. But the character is milquetoast at best, a dreamer with typical young-person problems like a stepmom she doesn't get on with. Miles (Twilight's Billy Burke) is Han Solo with a sword and less conviction, first saying he's going to stay and drink Scotch while the militia comes to get him, then changing his mind and then deciding to leave after they show up and he effortlessly paints the floor with their blood. Nate (J.D. Pardo) would have been an Abercrombie & Fitch model had technology kept those sweatshops running, but instead he's a militia member with the sweets for Charlie. Maggie's the stepmom who's a thorn for Charlie, Aaron's the former tech-geek millionaire and current comic relief, and Ben was the alarmed dad with all the secrets who died early in the episode. Only Giancarlo Esposito as the manacing Captain Neville brought any real life to his character (though he's still a long way from his performance as Breaking Bad's Gus Fring). The early problems here stem from the fact that the characters we're traveling with on this journey—Charlie, Maggie, Miles, Aaron—don't feel like they have any bond at all. It's even questionable if any of them like each other. They've been slapped together and didn't even really share a victory by the end of the episode to give us a sense of a team. So far all we've got is a handful of strangers going on a long walk; is this how we want to spend an hour every Monday?

As for the plot, the pilot was written like it had checkpoints to hit rather than a story to tell, making it a lot more boring than it wanted to be. A lot of character decisions were made to push the story in the right direction rather than make them seem like real human beings. For example, Danny, Charlie's brother who was eventually kidnapped by Neville, approached a no-win situation against a band of armed marauders with a crossbow. Not a good idea. Obviously things went bad, and what could have been a simple abduction became a town slaughter, all because Danny was dumb. So Danny's father was killed (along with all his secrets), Danny was captured, and we had our heroes' first quest: Save Danny. Mission accomplished in the writers' room, but gah! Putting wheels in motion by making characters act stupid is painful to watch, and we'll certainly never trust Danny with a weapon again.

The rest of the story was held up by moments of incredible convenience, taking away any of the potency of characters' special "connections." Danny's asthma attack led him to the doorstep of one of the people who knows the secrets of the blackout. Nate happened to be around to kill Charlie's attacker, and Maggie was coincidentally carrying some poisoned whiskey that only started taking effect after both bad guys lapped it up. In Chicago, the first person Charlie asked about Miles turned out to be Miles. Miles' old buddy is bad guy General Monroe. And [this scene was deleted in the final cut of the pilot after appearing in the advanced screener sent out months ago, but rest assured, it's another very convenient thing]. In this expansive, mysterious world, we're only seeing the slice that's immediately involved in the blackout, twisting our perspective on the situation. If Danny can pass out and be randomly saved by a woman who knows a ton about the blackout mystery and Miles is the first person in Chicago to talk to Charlie, then how big is this world, exactly? Right now it seems like everyone is in on the secret except us.

With all that said, even though the pilot was a rickety mess, there's enough here to give it a chance and let it develop. I know, I know. Fool me twice and all that. But the characters will get better. There's a whole world to explore in which city-states have evolved differently with no power, really opening up the possibilities. And then there's always that mystery of the blackout that is impossible to resist. Yes, they're the same pitfalls that have burned us before, but the chance that the pilot was just a victim of pilotitis, studio notes, and trying to do too much—combined with having Kripke at the helm—is good enough for me to return for more. But the leash is short and I'll have a candlelit game of Scrabble ready to go as backup Monday-night entertainment.



NOTES

Revolution is shaping up to be a throwback to old adventure movies more than a copy of the wave of recent serialized sci-fi dramas. If it can develop its characters, it could really work.

– In every post-apocalyptic world, why does every outcast have rape first and foremost on their minds?

– It looks like the blackout started somewhere on the East Coast, near New York. Here's a screenshot of the first frame of the shot where the power goes out, with an overlay of a map of the U.S. Most of the power is already out in the Northeast, and it goes dark radially from there. Is it too simple to say that's where it starts, and that's where we'll get most of our answers?