Revolution, the new show by J J Abrams, the TV wunderkind who has so far dazzled us with Lost, Fringe and Alias, and somewhat disappointed us with Alcatraz (and Lost – let’s be honest the ending was, um, you know, not great) has arrived after much fanfare.
And surprise, surprise, it’s another hypothetical glimpse – or more than a glimpse really since the show, on the strength of viewer numbers over its first three episodes, has been picked up for a full season by NBC – into another dystopian future for mankind who apparently can’t catch a break in the near-to-far future.
It’s a far cry from the flying cars, instant food and shiny high rise buildings of the 1950s vision of the future. These days the flying cars are more likely to have been blown out of the sky by invading aliens, the food eaten by zombies who quickly moved on to chowing down on the people who cooked it, and the towering buildings plunged into darkness by a collapse in society of some kind or another.
It’s this final bleak urban landscape that Revolution clearly aims to inhabit.
In short order – my count was about 3-4 minutes – it erases all traces of modern society as any and all forms of electrical power vanish from the face of the earth, planes fall from the sky, cars stop where they’re driving and people begin dying starting with the man who may know why it’s all happening, Ben Matheson (Tim Guinee).
In fact so quick is the descent to an almost bucolic agrarian past that you have barely finished taking in the very briefly realised downfall of powered civilisation than you are presented with farmland and horse drawn carts where once manicured lawns and SUVs ruled.
It almost looks quaint and the stuff of rural fantasies right up until the Monroe Militia, the dictatorial military power behind the throne of the Monroe Republic, comes storming into the compound flexing its muscle, killing Ben and taking away his son Danny who was the one, in act of youthful defiance, who got his dad killed by the leader of the militia party, Captain Tom Neville (Giancarlo Esposito).
There is nothing wrong in one sense with such a headlong rush to set the scene. After all, this is the pilot of a new much-hyped show, you want to capture viewers as quickly as possible, and get them locked into the show before they’ve even had a chance to blink.
But in doing so, Revolution unfortunately ends up proving vaguely unsatisfying.
On the plus side, it elegantly and quickly establishes that mankind is the victim of some sort of vaguely indicated conspiracy – just before the lights go out, Ben rushes into his house desperately downloading a mysterious file on to his computer seconds before computers are history and placing it in a Celtic-patterned silver locket, the likes of which are seen later in the show with someone else entirely – and also that barely 15 years after the end of life as know it, we have fashioned some sort of working society.
So far so good. But somewhere in this broad brushstroke rushed setting of the scene, depth of character, a real sense of jeopardy that would have been generated by a slow build up of menace and impending doom, and a nightmarish descent into a post-apocalytic world are all lost.
Yes the Monroe Militia is scary nasty, and yes Ben dies and his son is captured, all leaving his daughter “Charlie” (Tracy Spiridakos) suitably traumatised. All horrible things that are meant to get the action moving and viewers engaged.
And to an extent they do. After all, we kept watching.
But it’s all too quick and you get a sense someone cut out whole scenes while you weren’t looking, pulling away the curtain for the big reveal with a triumphant cry of “Tah da!”an act or two after they should have.
It sets out to ask the big questions – is mankind able to survive without the civilising bonds of society to keep them on the humanistic straight and narrow? Is it everyone for themselves or does basic humanity survive the cataclysm? (“Charlie” thinks so; Maggie disagrees seeing everyone as a threat) And what kind of government steps into a post-apocalyptic world where the old rule of law is no longer respected and there aren’t the resources to enforce it even if it is?
They’re all good questions but instead of clever answers, the sort Lost sought to provide for better or worse, we end up with cliches, black-and-white dictators – the man who heads the Monroe Republic, General Sebastian Monroe is an old friend of Charlie’s uncle, Miles (Billy Burke) who acts like everyone’s idea of a cruel tinpot dictator – and cartoon villains that would be more at home in a spaghetti Western than a gripping post-apocalyptic thriller.
Even Uncle Miles, who is touted by Ben as the one who will help them out, is drawn as a Han Solo-esque type who only cares for himself and must be cajoled and convinced to join his earnest niece and the rest of the party in their quest to rescue Danny from the evil clutches of the militia, is a cardboard cutout who apparently possesses the fighting skills of a ninja warrior.
It lacks the sort of gritty backbone that The Walking Dead has always had and that Falling Skies belatedly acquired after a shaky start. At the moment Revolution is tending to the Terra Nova school of drama – a high concept idea executed in the rags of cliches and predictability with the barest of narrative threads to hold it all together.
One cause for hope is that, in almost the dying moments of the first episode, the conspiracy began to take shape, after being largely ignored.
We see an ex-algebra teacher, now rural dweller – really who isn’t? – Grace (Maria Howell) who rescues and then later, with a figurative knife at her throat courtesy of Captain Neville, betrays Danny to the militia, unlock a heavily fortified attic room and switch on lights … and a basic computer and began chatting with someone.
That sort of reveal isn’t new in one sense – Jericho featured a similar storyline – but properly handled it could lend the show some much needed gravitas and heft, and I can only hope that they develop Grace into the sort of intriguing figure that short scene seems to suggest she is.
Goodness knows Revolution, which I at least enjoyed enough to warrant viewing episode two, needs something more.
It needs to move beyond cardboard cutout figures, obvious story lines, and even a few cutesy family friendly moments, which again evoke unsettling comparisons to Terra Nova which sank in a mire of half-realised narrative and Hallmark-esque treacle, and develop the sort of scary take-no-prisoners realism that has made shows like Jericho and Falling Skies, and AMC’s mega-smash hit The Walking Dead such compelling dramas.