It's not hard, when looking at the latest headlines, to understand why a show best described as "the night the lights went out in America," would appeal to heavyweight producer J.J. Abrams, creator of shows like Lost, Alias, and Person of Interest. Abrams has a knack for tapping into the cultural zeitgeist, and the big budget Revolution, airing Monday nights on NBC, capitalizes on the fear that the end of the modern Western world is imminent in a way no other recent primetime drama has.
Set a mere 15 years into the future, what separates Revolution from similar offerings like Terra Nova and Falling Skies is that there is (in the pilot at least) nothing supernatural or extraterrestrial about the sudden collapse of civilization. And there are no pious hints that it's the fault of present-day citizens—no suggestion that our treatment of the environment or our refusal to adopt the ideals of foreign cultures or our overconsumption of material goods somehow led to this lousy lot.
One day, computers simply power-on, batteries work, and cell phones ring. The next day, they do not. The whole world goes dark as planes fall out of the sky and billions of cars come to a halt on highways all over the world. We don't know the cause but we do know that Ben Matheson (Tim Guinee), a government insider, saw it coming. He rushes home, tells his wife, "It's happening," and sits down to give his 4-year-old daughter, Charlie, the last taste of ice cream she will ever enjoy. The comfortable, middle-class life the Mathesons are about to lose looks loving, warm, and quintessentially American. A palpable sense of loss accompanies the fall of their conventional dream.
Flash forward and Charlie (Tracy Spiridakos) is now 17, living in a society where militias, armed mostly with swords, ride around on horseback harassing survivors who have cobbled together Third World lives in abandoned tract houses. In between gazing longingly at pictures of a lit-up Wrigley Field and other monuments of the past age, she ponders the big question—what made the power go out?
The militia has reason to believe her father and her Uncle Miles (Billy Burke), a former Marine Corps sergeant, know the answer. Uncovering whether the Matheson brothers truly do hold the clues and whether their loyal band of friends and family members will be able to restore some sort of democracy to a land devolved into feudal tribalism will likely make up the rest of the first season.
Like just about every drama on a major network these days, Revolution has a moderate amount of bad language and more than a moderate amount of violence. Jon Favreau, best known for helming the Iron Man franchise, directed the premiere episode, and it boasts something of a big screen feel. This means the acting is better than what is often witnessed on TV, but the combat sequences are as prolonged and implausible as any superhero movie.
I'm hopeful that once a less-A-list director takes over for Favreau, the flashy fights will fall by the wayside in favor of character and storyline development. Especially since NBC has a chance here to talk about themes that no other dramas address, yet are on everyone's mind. Not, what if the world loses power, but what if the world loses the United States?
On the surface, it would have made more sense for Abrams and creator Eric Kripke to name their show something more closely related to its central mystery. Something like Blackout or Power Outage or some such. Yet they chose a name that calls to mind the nation's founding and dropped (as well as dressed) their characters in a world closely akin to the one Jefferson, Adams, and Washington might have inhabited. It could be a coincidence, but if it's not, NBC may, at long last, have a hit on its hands.