The best thing that NBC’s new sci-fi drama “Revolution, which premiered last night, has going for it is the way it’s found to be both futuristic and old-timey. The show is set 15 years after our present has devolved into anarchy following the lights going out and all technology ceasing to function, so it has the context of contemporary life — Aaron (Zak Orth) admits “I used to work at this place called Google” — with the trappings of something feudal. Characters get to indulge in all sorts of analog badassery, including hunting, crossbows wielding, making medicinal potions and swordfighting a whole battalion of militia men, but they also seem more relatable and less foreign than people from an era in which those things would be period-appropriate.
So why is the pilot for “Revolution,” directed with little flair by Jon Favreau, such a drag? The series has a solid pedigree — it’s created by Eric Kripke, whose “Supernatural” has been going strong for seven seasons already, and it’s executive produced by J. J. Abrams, whose record when it comes to TV can be hit or miss but whose shows always have a solid core. And yet a solid center is exactly what “Revolution” lacks in this first episode, which is filled with nice world’s-end imagery — the steampunky trappings, the spectacle of abandoned airplanes, suburban streets turned to agriculture and Wrigley Field gone to seed. In the end, there is little for an audience to invest in.
Pilot episodes have a lot of exposition to get through, and “Revolution” is hampered in some ways by that burden as well as by an introduction that tries to plant seeds to the mystery by starting with the moment of the blackout and then hopping ahead to a future in which everything’s decrepit and plant-strewn and run by local warlords. But pilot episodes also have to offer a flicker of what a series will regularly become, and “Revolution” offers little of that, either in terms of the plot driving it forward or with regard to the universe it’s created.
Despite its striking look, the basic setting of “Revolution” does seems very familiar. From the abandoned landscape to which Rick Grimes wakes up in “The Walking Dead” to the decimated, alien-invaded world of TNT’s “Falling Skies” to History’s speculative doc series “Life After People,” the idea of a planet on which civilization has been largely or entirely wiped out is one on which popular culture has been fixated for a while now.
“Revolution” has got its scraggly band of survivors and its wrecked society struggling to hold on to any structure, but in practice there’s little to distinguish it and set it apart from similar stories that have graced either the small or large sceen in recent years. And none of the characters stand out in this introductory episode as anything more than a stock type — there’s the reluctant badass hero Miles (Billy Burke), the unfortunately commonplace bratty teenager Charlie (Tracy Spiridakos), the aforementioned nerd Aaron and the bad lieutenant Tom (Giancarlo Esposito), serving the self-appointed militia leader Monroe (David Lyons), whose connection to Miles was revealed in a flashback.
There’s only been one episode of “Revolution” to date, and its ratings were good, which means there’s plenty of time for it to improve. But part of the niggling sense of dissatisfaction that comes with watching it doesn’t seem the fault of the hastily sketched out character types nor of the not-that-interesting central mystery. It’s more a feeling of apocalypse fatigue, that this scenario and the inevitable reveal that it’s other survivors who are the biggest danger are old hat and that “Revolution” has yet summoned anything to set it apart.
Watching Burke swashbuckle his way around a crumbling staircase in what was once a fancy Chicago hotel is fun, but I longed only half-jokingly for a reveal that he was once a LARPer instead of a former military man (who else but them and fencers could get in so much practice with a sword?). The post-apocalyptic setting has become so filled with familiar tropes and so stripped of novelty that “Revolution” demands something to set it apart other than just an absence of technology — some new twist on what life is like without the things on which we’ve become so dependent, something that could make you rethink what would happen were governments to fall. Crossbows are cool and all, but they can only take you so far.