Wednesday, September 19, 2012

TV Review: Revolution, NBC (Pilot)

Bottom Line Up Front: The show is well-produced, but lacks depth.

To be fair, Revolution does provide some new wrinkles to the old blueprint.  I'll start with the bad first, and finish with the good, because there's still enough interesting moments in this sci-fi/family drama to make it into your DVR schedule. Oh, you can watch Revolution on NBC/Monday 10/9c or on the interwebs whenever you you feel like it.

The show is about a family (particularly an uncle/niece duo) living in a post-apocalyptic America where every single piece of technology - computers, planes, cars, phones, even lights - has mysteriously blacked out. According to NBC, it's a drama with sweeping scope and intimate focus, "Revolution" is also about family - both the family you're born into and the family you choose.

We'll start with that.

If the hook for the show is about a family that you were either born into and the one you choose, then it doesn't feel like it.

At least the first episode doesn't.

The show begins with the blackout. I suppose we need to see lights shutting off to understand what a blackout looks like. Sure the special effects were cool to watch before dropping us into a totally green Chicago suburb, but that's not what the show is about. If the premise was to stop or deal with an appending blackout, then sure, but otherwise just trust that the audience will figure out that machines don't work anymore.

If I hadn't watched AMC's The Walking Dead, I wouldn't mind this kind of scripting. The Dead didn't spend time giving us scenes to illustrate the zombie outbreak, instead we stayed close to our main characters and experienced it with them. If Revolution hopes to develop intrigue and mystery, less is always more. I'm sure we're going to get plenty of chances to watch flashbacks in future episodes. I don't know about you, but I'm more interested in watching suburbanites live like 19th century American pioneers anyway.

Did anyone notice how similar that view of earth looked like the intro to Heroes? I almost wish they would have just rebooted that show.

Now that we've watched the end of the world as far as texting is concerned, 15 years go by and we meet our family.  The show centers on a teenage girl, Charlie Matheson (Tracy Spiridakos), that likes to collect post cards and provide the exposition to every scene. That's not fair, every scene tries to beat us over the head with exposition. But that's ok, to a point.

This is why it doesn't work for me. Instead of being true to the characters, the show is full of scenes written with viewer reactions in mind. If Charlie Matheson (Tracy Spiridakos) is our protagonist why does she spend so much time daydreaming about the past. She is now part of the post-tech generation. I would expect her to have accepted her reality and be working to make her cul-de-sac village a better place to live. Here's why this is bad for the show.

Instead of giving us a character that is comfortable in this blacked-out future, the writers want to make sure the audience can relate to important characters. We, the audience, don't want to live in a world without netflix, turn-by-turn navigation, not to mention lights, plumbing, and ferris wheels. We want our tablets, phones, and Google. So they give us some scenes of Charlie daydreaming about the way things used to be. This way the audience and she have something in common, for example: ice cream. Except, that would have worked better if the Dad (you remember the guy from the intro and previews who knew about the blackout ahead of time and downloaded some secret matrix stuff to his USB drive/goth necklace) was our protagonist.  But that can't happen, because we need a reason to go on a quest.

I guess a show starring an old guy that knows what he's doing doesn't resonate with people.

Charlie's brother, Danny  (Graham Rogers), is taken prisoner by the local militia early in the episode. Charlie sets out to find her Uncle per the wishes of her dying father and then rescue Danny.  She's joined by her dad's girlfriend (we learn early on that Charlie's mom must have died sometime after the black out) and an overweight dude that used to own Google (at least enough to make 80 million dollars).

The show quickly gives us a prelude to romantic tension between Charlie and a Taylor Lautner stand-in that carries a bow around.  Evidently archery is very cool.  This would be ok (the love interest of course not the archery) if I cared about Charlie at all. So far she's not presented as a sexy twenty-something in tight clothing as much as she's someone's daughter that just lost her immediate family. We don't have any meaningful scenes or dialogue that would bring Charlie and her new Bo together romantically, except for the fact that they are roughly the same age and are both healthy.

Let the romance build naturally. Don't throw these characters together out of obligation.  It feels forced.  So do the fight scenes.

The action scenes are pretty good.  But when we are told ahead of time that the uncle is "good at killing", you set yourself up to deliver some Jason Bourne-type bad-assery.  Sadly, Miles Matheson (Billy Burke) doesn't deliver. It's good, it's just not great.  Either you are going to make Miles into an invincible action hero that can perform his best impersonation of Denzel Washington in The Book of Eli, or you let him bare knuckle his way out of trouble.  I think Revolution wants Miles to do both.

The show does other things very well, and for a network pilot, this show has a lot of upside. The concept is great and can tell a range of stories that can exist in the future world they've created and remain just as relevant to the audience watching. Ronald Moore did a great job of this with his reboot of Battlestar Galactica.  BSG was able to tell stories about terrorism and and wars of ideology without stepping out of the fictional universe. Revolution will undoubtedly explore the destructive consequences of our current addiction to electricity and power both figuratively and literally.

It looks amazing.  With J.J. Abrams and Jon Favreau involved I would hope so.

This is becoming the standard for network television and that's good for TV watchers.  Every penny spent producing this pilot was worth it. The acting, effects, cinematography, choreographing, and direction were all on point. I could have done without stock video of New Orleans post-Katrina, but maybe that was just a reminder that people are suffering around the world without power whether it's caused by natural disaster or otherwise.

The fall TV line up includes some ambitious original dramas. I like that. Chances are only one or two will survive the winter. I hope this is one of them. So much of this show reminds me of the promise that Heroes offered fans.  After one episode, we know enough to at least check back next week to get to know these characters a little more. I hope we do, because I don't think watching special effects and hollow relationships will be enough to extend this Revolution.

 - Eric McLeroy

My predictions for the show just in case it doesn't last.

1. The Matheson's knew about the black out and wanted it to happen for environmental reasons.

2. Danny chooses the militia.

3. Lots of spys and people switching sides.

4. We'll see more people using secret computers. Why else would he have a central character with Google experience. He's the go-to tech guy.

5. The secret USB sticks aren't like yours. They're not only protected from whatever keeps engines from not working, but they have their own power and can fire up a homebrew commodore 64.

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