“Revolution” has probably the most intriguing premise of any new series this season. It stars a number of likable actors. The behind-the-scenes team has a proven track record in creating shows that balance strong serialized stories with well-drawn characters.
In other words, it seems to have all the ingredients to be the water-cooler show of the fall. It’s probably not a good sign, though, that all we could think about as we were watching the pilot for the NBC drama, which premieres Monday (Sept. 17), was steam engines.
“Revolution” takes place 15 years after something makes everything that uses any form of electricity — from your iPad to your car to the simplest light bulb — stop working. We see the calamity in a prologue: Planes fall from the sky and all the lights go out. Chicagoan Ben Matheson (Tim Guinee) knows why, although he doesn’t have time to tell his wife (Elizabeth Mitchell) and two young kids what’s going on before the power goes out. He does, however, manage to download something very important to a flash drive/amulet.
The story then shifts to 15 years later. Society has reverted to a pre-industrial state, and what was the United States is now controlled by various militias. Ben is now a farmer, his kids Charlie (Tracy Spiridakos) and Danny (Graham Rogers) young adults. They live a reasonably peaceful life in a subdivision-turned-agrarian village.
Militiamen, however, soon come calling, led by a captain named Tom Neville (Giancarlo Esposito). They’re looking for Ben (and presumably his magic flash drive), things get tense, people get shot and Danny ends up in the militia’s clutches. Ben tells Charlie to go find his brother Miles (“Twilight” dad Billy Burke), who lives in what’s left of Chicago. She and her traveling companions Maggie (Anna Lise Phillips) and Aaron (Zak Orth) find him, trouble finds them, there’s a pretty cool swordfight and we’re off and running.
But yeah — steam engines. At times when we were supposed to be wondering if Miles would reluctantly join Charlie in her quest, and who the mysterious Gen. Monroe is that Neville works for, we kept thinking about things that don’t require electricity to work and why people aren’t building them. It’s because, frankly, “Revolution” doesn’t do the best job of setting its own ground rules.
It’s one thing to suspend disbelief and roll with the idea that “physics went insane,” as Aaron puts it. It’s a pretty great what-if, actually. But 15 years on, wouldn’t you think that people would be at least trying to build some steam-powered tools? James Watt started building steam engines 100-plus years before Edison got his light bulbs to work, so it’s not like it couldn’t be done.
That, and guns. Neville says in the confrontation with Ben and his fellow villagers that private ownership of a firearm is a “hanging offense.” So, fine — chances are any guns civilians have are not likely to be state of the art. Yet in the aforementioned swordfight (Burke, incidentally, handles a blade with aplomb, and it’s the most exciting sequence of the pilot), two militiamen are clearly using ramrods to reload their muskets.
So did all the modern-day guns run out of bullets beforehand, then? Can no one get a shotgun shell in the Midwest anymore?
It’s a safe bet that “Revolution” creator Eric Kripke (“Supernatural”) and fellow executive producers J.J. Abrams and Jon Favreau (who directed the pilot) would rather have viewers asking different questions. They’ve clearly put a good deal of thought into creating this world (which, incidentally, is pretty gorgeous, all lush greens and semi-ruined cityscapes). The bulk of the cast is strong enough to buy a few more episodes to explore the state of the post-electric world further — or make the adventures of Miles and Charlie so compelling that those questions recede.
One more question that almost certainly will be resolved is what sort of role Mitchell is playing. She joined the show after the pilot, replacing Andrea Roth, and Kripke then rewrote the character somewhat. As it stands, she’s only in a couple scenes in the pilot, but you have to assume that Kripke and Abrams didn’t hire her just for a cameo.
The track records of the people in front of and behind the camera on “Revolution” will probably keep us watching for at least a few more weeks. But a cool premise can only take a show so far, and there’s some work to do on the character front to make the show worthy of using all available technology not to miss.
“Revolution” premieres at 10 p.m. ET Monday on NBC.