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Flickers of power in "Revolution" pilot

Aaron, Rachel, Charlie Matheson, Miles Matheson, Nate Walker, Tom Neville (NBC)
NBC put the full pilot to its upcoming dystopian drama, Revolution, online today. While I didn't find it to be the best thing since, say, the invention of electricity, it did have some promising flickers of power.

We're introduced to Ben and Rachel Matheson and their two children (daughter Charlie and son Danny) just before a mysterious event takes out all power worldwide. Cars stop in their tracks, planes fall from the sky, and computers shut down forever. Somehow, Ben knows the event is coming and manages to download a bunch of files on a special USB drive before everything goes dark.

(Caution: spoilers ahead. You've been warned.)

Flash-forward 15 years to a modern day cul-de-sac converted into a fenced-in farming village where Ben lives with his children (Rachel has presumably died). While Charlie is away, Captain Tom Neville of the Monroe Militia (complete with members scarred with the militia’s insignia on their forearms) comes looking for Ben on orders from their malevolent commander. When Danny tries to prevent them from taking his father, Ben is shot and Danny hauled off. Charlie gets back just in time to receive her father’s deathbed mission to find her Uncle Miles so he can help rescue Danny. Charlie, along with the town doctor (and Ben's lover) and town teacher (and resident geek to whom Ben charged protecting the USB drive), set out for Chicago in search of Miles.

The series has drawn comparisons to dystopian stories like The Hunger Games (both share a bow-bearing heroine) and Jericho (both explore a post-apocalypse from a small-town perspective) as well as the inevitable link to series producer J.J. Abrams’ most famous drama, Lost. Indeed, as I watched I couldn’t help flashing back to these series as well as films like The Postman and The Book of Eli.

But Revolution’s uniqueness comes in its mystery (why did all the power go out) and its exploration of a world without any kind of electrical power and how people would handle the collapse of world civilization. It delivered on these elements with a dramatic opening, sprawling landscapes of vine-covered cities and images of life in cul-de-sac villages. We get glimpses and hints of republics and militias cropping up in the vacuum of collapsed governments and the difficulty and improvisation of weaponry in an electricity forlorn and factory-less world.  

Character-wise, however, I thought the pilot was inconsistent. For example, Charlie’s character was uneven. On the one hand, her character is laced with naivety: she keeps memories and dreams in a rusty Star Wars lunch box, she’s inexperienced enough to believe her uncle will help her simply because “we’re family,” and she hasn’t seemed to encounter the violence of which her father warns her early on. Yet killing a person seems to come easy to her; she can fight well and kill without remorse. I found myself longing for the way The Hunger Games trilogy wrestles with the consequences of violence, especially on children and teenagers.

Then there’s Captain Tom Neville. The pilot left me feeling as if he’s a fairly cardboard bad guy.  I would have liked to have seen at least one real revelation that left us thinking there was some hope of humanity in him or redemption for him. Giancarlo Esposito is more than capable of a complex character; let’s hope the writers give him one.

Miles and Aaron, on the other hand, were more engaging. Under his jaded and tough exterior, Miles has the capacity to join a larger cause—and he is one wicked samurai with a sword. The fight scene in The Grand is impressive by television standards. And Aaron has the promise of the geek appeal of characters like Lost’s Hurley and SGU’s Eli, who give us access to the story through someone we can relate to. While the characters are still new and yet to be developed, I didn’t have much of a problem believing they were who they were supposed to be.

Grace / NBC
But I think the best character in the pilot is Grace. Maria Howell’s mere presence seems to lend a gravitas to the series. And Grace is also one of more interesting characters even though she gets little screen time. I appreciated the way the writers reveal her story. Critics have pointed out that one of the weaknesses of the pilot is the amount of explanatory dialogue and comments. But when it comes to Grace, the writers “show, don’t tell.” In her few scenes, we learn she can handle a gun, has lost a son (who had asthma), knows how to make hard decisions, has a commitment to a greater cause and has a connection to the power outage. (Though I did question the wisdom of keeping computer equipment in a room accessed by a multi-lock door that screams, “Secret inside!”) It is Grace that gives me hope the writers can develop and even out the rest of the characters.

Apart from the characters, I am intrigued by the village-like community portrayed; it’ll be interesting to see if and how they develop that in contrast to our modern experience of life. And while there is the big and intriguing question of what made the power go out, there do not seem to be any of the big questions of life fermenting in the story so far—which was one of the things I appreciated about Lost, Jericho and Hunger Games.

Bottom line? I’ve got mixed feelings about the pilot. I still find the premise intriguing and the story promising. A few of the characters are truly engaging. However, the writing is uneven, particularly when it comes to some of the other characters. And I long for deeper questions and explorations beyond the obvious mystery event.

But it’s more than enough to keep me watching—and hoping that it’ll bring some God-talk into these open spaces.