matt zoller seitz

Seitz on Revolution: Bright Pedigree, Dim Prospects

REVOLUTION - Giancarlo Esposito as Lt. Neville
Photo: Bob Mahoney/NBC

Lost is an impossible act to follow, so I don’t envy that show’s co-creator J.J. Abrams as he returns with Revolution, a sci-fi drama set fifteen years after all electricity has mysteriously vanished. It must be hard for any artist, even one who can slalom down piles of money, to confront the expectation of topping himself, or at least not disgracing himself, after having been part of a bona fide pop culture event. Alas, the pilot for Revolution (which debuts tonight on NBC in its regular 10 p.m. timeslot) is weak sauce, and does not bode well for the series. It’s not quite so bad that you lose all hope, some of the images and performances are memorable, and it’s not inconceivable that future episodes could pique my interest again. But for now I’d put it in the “wait and see” column, without enthusiasm.

The opening sequence is thrilling: a large-scale account of the night that the world lost all power, batteries included. Cities go dark; planes fall from the sky; stranded cars on a highway lose power, starting with the foreground vehicles and continuing into the deep background of the shot, producing an effect similar to the ripple of runway lights at an airport. If nothing else, this sequence certifies that Revolution is, if nothing else, a rich concept with overtones of true horror. Watching iPhone screens fuzzing out and TV sets going dark and high-tech households being lit with candles affirms how precarious modern life is. One flick of fate’s switch could send us back to the Bronze Age.

But then … Pffffft. Flash-foward fifteen years. We’re in a post-apocalyptic landscape, and the sight of it prompts (in this viewer, anyway) certain skeptical questions. To wit: Do we really need yet another movie or TV series set in a post-apocalyptic landscape? And if we must have one, can’t there be — as in the Mad Max films and The Road, and occasionally on The Walking Dead — a persistent sense of hardship and encroaching menace? How come, nine times of ten, when Hollywood storytellers set a story after a civilization-wide cataclysm, what’s onscreen often looks oddly managed and sedate, like a Hollywood producer’s idea of “roughing it”? Revolution’s vision, such as it is, is as undistinguished as the one depicted in Terra Nova, which made a heavily armored compound in a dinosaur-infested prehistoric jungle look like Disney World’s Tomorrow Land. You could picture J.J. Abrams and his family vacationing in the Amish/Colonial Williamsburg–looking town pictured in the Revolution pilot’s first act, as long as they didn’t have to stay more than a weekend and had decent wireless. 

Almost every character is conventionally pretty, they all seem to have access to shampoo, conditioner, exfoliant, and base, and the clothes all seem to have been stitched in the last week, in a style that could be dubbed Post–American Apparel. Life on the Lost island seemed, if not tougher, then at least weirder and wilder, because there wasn’t a single thing on that show that you could say you’d seen before, except for a few wooden performances and some dumb, arbitrary plotting. “What the hell is this island?” was such a primally compelling question that it propped up the show whenever it faltered, which was often. “What caused the power to go out?” doesn’t have the same electricity (I’m here all night, folks!), and I’ll be curious to see whether the Revolution writers can deepen or expand on it. The shots of ruined, vine-encrusted national landmarks are striking, but you can’t build a show around them.

Tim Guinee (Andrew Wiley on The Good Wife) stars as scientist Ben Matheson, who’s somehow connected to the blackout. He’s earnest and committed, but there’s nothing especially notable about his performance or memorable about the character — a description that applies to almost every other character and actor, unfortunately. Elizabeth Mitchell plays Ben’s wife Rachel in the prologue; when the story picks up a decade-and-a-half later, we’re told that she disappeared after the cataclysm, and to its credit, the show doesn’t pretend that it could cast one of the stars of Lost in one scene and never bring her back on again. As Charlie Matheson, the grown-up version of Ben and Rachel’s cute little daughter in the prologue, Tracy Spiradakos is as flawlessly gorgeous and unaffectedly innocent as Uma Thurman in Dangerous Liaisons; unfortunately she can’t act a lick.

Billy Burke (Charlie Swan in the Twilight movies) is Miles, a former Marine who had a tantalizingly interrupted phone conversation with Ben on the night of the blackout, and is now tending bar in the candlelit lobby of a decaying Chicago hotel. He’s this show’s Obi-Wan Kenobi, the mysterious character that the heroes have to seek out for tutelage and protection, but while he shows off some impressive swordsmanship in a protracted action sequence (mildly exciting but visually blah, like the rest of the series), he’s not magnetic, just weary and distrustful. Zack Orth plays Aaron, the talkative, rotund, bearded, bespectacled character who I guess is meant to be this show’s Hurley, a fanboy stand-in. David Lyons has a couple of promising introductory scenes as General Monroe, a warlord who rules this part of the former United States, but like so many aspects of Revolution, the character serves mainly to remind you that you’ve seen all this before, most likely in Kevin Costner’s The Postman. The best actors in the cast are Maria Howell as Grace, a good samaritan who’s kinder and wiser than she initially seems, and Giancarlo Esposito as one of Monroe’s captains, who’s awfully engaging and talkative for such a supposedly ruthless man; each hints at a vastly more interesting series occurring mostly beyond the sight lines of the one we’re watching.

The only thing that kept me from putting Revolution in the “Nothing to See Here” column of my Fall Preview was the pedigree. Abrams is hit-and-miss, but you can’t count him out entirely. He’s a showman who gives good awe. Revolution may very well have a few pan-neturalizing trump cards in reserve. If so, I hope it plays them soon.

TV Review: Revolution