Along with a few hundred other Boston-area residents, I attended a special screening of NBC’s upcoming Fall drama “Revolution” at the Boston Common AMC Loews Theatre tonight. Now, I’ve recently recorded a podcast in which I stated I wouldn’t give full reviews to any new show until any program in particular has aired five episodes. That both gives me a better chance to assess the show’s long-term strengths and weaknesses and given other viewers time to make the same judgments. So think of these five thoughts less as a review and more as an attempt to talk about both the experience of watching a TV pilot this way as well as specific content of the show itself.
(Since this is far from the first such screening that NBC has hosted, and since they have put the entire pilot online for all to see, there’s no need to hide specifics about the episode. But fair warning all the same.)
The show’s effects hold up pretty well onscreen. The veracity of special effects is about the 46th most important thing when it comes to judging the merits of a particular television program. But the sheer spectacle of watching an episode of television on the big screen was one of the draws of the evening, and it’s worth noting how far effects have come within the still limited resources of episodic television. We’re not a decade out from “Lost”, but now shows can casually throw in planes falling from the sky and cityscapes overrun with vegetation. Will such spectacle continue in weeks to come? Probably not. But it was nice to take the normal screener experience (in-browser, 3’’ square viewing area) and blow it up and still not see the seams in the production.
Too bad the effects once again depict a relatively uninteresting time in the show’s mythology. I call this “The Terra Nova Problem,” since this sprung up recently in another major network’s attempt at sci-fi world building. In both shows, we hear about times wrought with struggle, pain, sacrifice, improvisation, and hard choice. It’s not that either “Terra Nova” nor “Revolution” depict happy-go-lucky worlds, but both bypass the truly difficult times for ones with pockets of safety easily found. Now, perhaps this is a function of a public’s appetite for some respite amidst the chaos and desolation of a post-apocalyptic world. But why have so many shows set in such a dramatic fictional time period and then shy away from that period’s implications? Anecdotally, I seemed to have more problems with this than the crowd, that seemed generally into the pilot, laughed at the jokes much harder than I did, and by and large came away with positive buzz in the few snippets I overheard while leaving the theatre.
Another post-apocalyptic world hangs heavily over this one. Looks, the show has a lead that’s a fatherless teenager girl who wields a bow as her only weapon in a fearsome world. She has a talk, dark-haired, morally grey boy toy along for parts (but not all) of the ride. Sound familiar? Whether intentional or not, “The Hunger Games” looms large over this. But while many of the adult actors in this show are solid to good in this pilot (more on them next), Tracy Spiridakos (who plays Charlie Matheson) is no Jennifer Lawrence. Having a teenage girl at the center of this type of drama is a great idea, but at least in the pilot, there’s little to suggest that this is a character worth following over the long haul of the show. Ostensibly, the producers saw something in her that will pay off down the line. But whereas both the book and film of “The Hunger Games” do good jobs succinctly sketching out Katniss’ history, the “Revolution” pilot shows Charlie’s love of ice cream then sends her on a trek across The Island to find a hatch. I’m sorry, across Illinois to find a Chicago hotel.
Those adults are good, but one recasting choice raises questions the show may not want to ask at this point. If you’re reading this, chances are you’re more than a casual fan of television. You understand, to some extent, the way in which the sausage of TV is made. So you probably know that Elizabeth Mitchell, who plays Charlie’s mom Rachel, was cast after Andrea Roth portrayed her in the original pilot sent to critics. Such recasting happens all the time, and it’s not inherently a newsworthy thing. However, Rachel is missing for a large portion of the pilot, and Charlie believes her to be dead. Casting Mitchell in this role draws unnecessary attention to this missing mother, calling into question her overall role in the show’s central mystery. She clearly knows something about the blackout, so her disappearance could be a cover to be part of the underground cabal that can communicate through Dharma Initiative-type computers. (I’d put even odds on her being at the other end of the episode’s ending electronic conversation.) Questions about her role in all this add some drama to the viewing experience, to be sure. But wouldn’t be a much better thing to have the shock of her true fate revealed out of the blue at, say, midseason? It’s possible until then she’ll feature in this show’s flashbacks, but it’s hard to believe Mitchell will only be seen in the narrative past.
The other adults are pretty good, too. Billy Burke hasn’t always done much for me, but he cuts a fine antihero in the pilot. (It helps that he mows down about twenty guys via sword and well-placed crossbow.) If I told you Giancarlo Espisito conveyed cool menace all while smiling and talking softly, would you be surprised? Of course not. Most delightfully, the show’s Big Bad is played by David Lyons. That’s right: The Cape is now The Big Bad. That’s amazing! He gets only a few choice lines, but sufficed to say I’ll be screaming “THE CAPE” every time he comes onscreen. (Here’s the part where I explain that not even Lawrence Olivier could have saved “The Cape,” thus Lyons is blameless for that debacle.) Zak Orth’s nerdy physicist Aaron is less successful, currently constituted as a series of tics rather than a complete character. Still, there’s always the chance Aaron, like Charlie, could deepen over time. It’s more important for Charlie to develop, because the show’s overall ceiling depends on her. Stretching out the mystery of why the lights went out only works if we care about the characters we’re spending time with while the show delays playing its narrative trump card. I’ll watch more when this show finally airs on NBC, but it’s on a fairly tight leash. The second episode of this show will be far more instructive about what this program will be over the long haul. Let’s see how Eric Kripke and company take a high concept and turn it into a workable television program.