Never Bring a Gun to a Swordfight
original air-date: 09-17-12
Is it possible to combine the best parts of The Postman (such as they are), the mystery of LOST, and the direction that made Iron Man such a hit into the belle of the Fall line-up ball?
NBC is hoping the answer is "yes." But it will take a few more episodes to answer that question. And if previous J.J. Abrams projects are an indicator, several seasons to find out who turned off the lights. At least the premiere answered one question: Yes, Mr. Abrams "does have a type." More on that in a bit.
Revolution opens with linked flashbacks crafted to establish key plot elements while teasing the origins of important characters. The first scene shows us Ben (Tim Guinee), who arrives home in Chicago frantically to gather his family because "it's happening." Rounding out the family: a wife, daughter, and son.
Next, the story cuts to Ben's brother Miles (Billy Burke), a Marine returning from leave to his base in South Carolina with an unnamed buddy. After the phone call between Ben and Miles first gives way to static, the engines and headlights of the cars on the highway suddenly go out like a line of falling dominoes.
Back in Chicago, Ben is racing to download a special file into a pendant memory device. Here the power failures are not so orderly: Lit city windows darken randomly, and planes fall from the skies into fireballs. Perhaps the head of the special effects department wanted to to add both both "orderly" power failure and "random" power failure to his or her resume. In any case, everything electrical stops working. As Ben puts it: "It's all going to turn off."
Now, that premise has surprisingly caused some distress among would-be viewers who decry the global off switch as implausible, far fetched, inconsistent with the laws of physics, and so on. Oh really? Are these the same folks who buy into Doctor Who, BSG, or any number of sci-fi shows requiring a suspension of disbelief? To quote Sgt. Hulka: "Lighten up, Francis!"
Given no explanation of the power failure, it is far too early for such criticism. The real important test going forward is whether "the rules" of Revolution's dystopian setting remain consistent to what the writers establish over time. And as famed Newsweek movie critic David Ansen once said: "Put your brain in park and enjoy the ride."
And the pilot episode is a pretty fun ride. Sure, the show suffers from some questionable acting, unexplainable cleanliness, and weak plot devices. But the makers balance those flaws with some stronger performances, a few logical story developments, gorgeous CGI scenery, and early delivery of intriguing plot twists.
After the credits, the pilot picks up 15 years later in a small community that has literally cropped up in the cul-de-sac of an unfinished housing development, Sylvana Estates. We meet several inhabitants: teacher Aaron (Zak Orth), the previously seen Ben, as well as his now grown-up kids, Charlie (Tracy Spiradakos) and Danny (Graham Rogers), who've headed off on a hunting-cum-scavenging expedition.
Alas, their foraging within an old RV features the first instance of Danny's asthma as a weak plot device. You'd think a 15 year old, especially one who keeps himself so clean and his clothes so well-pressed, would have learned to avoid obvious allergen traps. Tied to this device is an unnecessary flashback to Chicago after the power failure. For some reason, calmness and frivolity have replaced Ben's panic. No reason to continue the exodus. After all, there's melting ice cream to eat!
Really, the asthma episode is just an excuse to introduce Maggie (Anna Lise Phillips; she's Australian but the character sounds British), a smart healer who is now with Ben (like Schrodinger's cat, Charlee and Ben's actual mom may or may not be dead at this point). Of course, many kids take time to warm to a step parent, and Charlie is no exception.
While Charlie heads off to sulk with a surprisingly well preserved box of pre-unplugging keepsakes (God bless that Chinese electronics craftsmanship!), solders of the Monroe Republic show up (a step up from General Bethlehem's Holnists with an encircled "M" replacing the Holnist "8").
Led by an appealingly logical Captain Neville (the talented and very welcome Breaking Bad alum Giancarlo Esposito), the soldiers are looking for Ben. Actually, brother Miles. But Captain Neville thinks Ben can help out. Fortunately, Ben had the forethought to pass of the pendant drive to Aaron. Here the show thankfully replaces weak plot devices with cold logic: a standoff doesn't end well. Captain Neville logically adds insult to injury by pointing out that Danny, like Han, shot first. Poor Charlie returns to find dad dead and her brother replacing Ben as "Miles bait."
But in the spirit of popular youth fiction everywhere, Charlie is a plucky young girl. She sets off to find her Uncle Miles and/or rescue Danny with Maggie and Aaron. They're the Three Musketeers in a beautifully CGI rendered post-apocalyptic landscape complete with a flooded church standing out as a possible loss of hope. During the trek learn two important things: Uncle Miles was supposedly "good at killing people", and former Google gazillionaire Aaron serves as comic relief more in theory than in practice.
Along the way they also meet Gale…I mean, Nate (JD Pardo), another surprisingly well groomed character, who has a bow. Given the popularity of The Hunger Games, the choice of weapon is no surprise. Bows now seem to be required for all sci fi and fantasy series. Hopefully, this trend will never lead to a certain bowtied time traveller informing us "I use a bow now. Bows are cool." The meeting of Charlie and Nate is the first of several scenes in which Charlie clearly resembles a young Jennifer Garner circa ALIAS. Alas, Charlie is no Sydney Bristow…
Unlike the bow, the clever way Maggie handles some bandits is a nice surprise and a welcome relief to the expected, cliche idea of Nate saving Charlee at the last minute with his bow. Unfortunately, after the cleverness, Nate saves Charlee at the last minute. With his bow.
Meanwhile, Danny manages to escape the soldiers only to awaken in a farmhouse after another asthma attack. Seriously? He hasn't figured out that maybe he should fashion a crude mask and/or avoid large, visible clouds of pollen? His rescuer Grace (Maria Howell) later gives him up to the searching Captain, who claims super lie detecting skills from his previous life as an insurance adjuster. Grace's motives become clear later on: sacrifice a stranger to protect an important secret.
Eventually the now Four Musketeers arrive in Chicago, which is also surprisingly clean. Charlee tracks down her uncle, now the bar tending proprietor of a former hotel where Aaron once got married (a completely unnecessary coincidence). Mile keeps a lot of fires; you'd think Chicagoans would think twice about fire risk.
In any case, we're treated to another Jennifer Garner shot of Charlie before Miles demonstrates via Nate that he's still good at killing people. Or at least disarming them. Of course, if he had killed Nate, he wouldn't have had a later opportunity to show off his true potential for dispatching bad guys. Of which Nate may or may not be a member (he's got the brand; but then again, those things are just so tough to wash out...)
And perhaps most importantly, Miles gets to school some soldiers on an important lesson of this dystopian future: Never bring a gun to a sword fight!
After a third Garner Glimpse, Charlie leaves with Uncle Miles, stepmom Maggie, and wacky neighbor Aaron. They're a new family for a new world.
Here the already rich pilot serves up a nice dessert in the form of two satisfying plot twists. First, another flashback reveals the name of Mile's marine buddy, who has really moved up in the world from that guy in the barracks who always loses his ID on leave. The second twist brings back a character that many likely dismissed and takes a cue from the CBS post-nuclear show Jericho, i.e., connection to some unknown power via a secret communications link.
Overall, Revolution has promise if viewers are willing to have fun. Sure, you can just question how all these folks have wrinkle free clothes, perfect team, and nice hair. Or you just turn off the lights, settle into the couch, and enjoy the ride.