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Maureen Ryan

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'Revolution' Review: Keep Calm And Carry A Crossbow

Posted: 09/13/2012 1:19 pm

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Oh, "Revolution." How you vex me.

To clarify, watching the pilot for "Revolution" (premieres Monday, Sept. 17 at 10 p.m. ET on NBC) is not a waste of time. There's a good chance you'll enjoy the modest, competent first hour of this show, which depicts life in America 15 years after all electricity mysteriously stops working.

Given that many of us can't go 15 minutes without checking email, Facebook or Twitter, the thought of being permanently without our electronic pacifiers is both scary and strangely alluring, and "Revolution" wisely plays up the positive parts of this tech-free scenario. Though tension and confrontations crop up here and there, there are also golden shots of sun-kissed farms and bountiful fields. (Early on in the pilot, we see the carcass of a car that has been turned into a vegetable planter. Talk about green energy!)

You can't blame NBC for turning away from high-brow sitcoms and toward a show that's a cross between "The Hunger Games" and a farmer's market crammed with artisanal products; financially speaking, fancily engineered products from Ivy League minds haven't exactly been a boon to the network. Commissioning this hardy show about plucky self-sufficiency is the TV-executive version of giving up all that citified, smarty-pants nonsense and buying a farm in Vermont.

To fully sell the back-to-the-land vibe, "Revolution" features a bevy of attractive young people with whom a life of bow-hunting, wood-chopping and crop-raising has apparently agreed, but here's the fly in the organic ointment: Those young people are the show's potential Achilles heel. The cast is almost evenly split between actors like Elizabeth Mitchell, Billy Burke, Zak Orth and Giancarlo Esposito -- all of whom have genuine presence and undeniable skills -- and actors playing "Revolution's" younger characters, all of whom display the vacuous anti-presence of catalog models.

The clash between the callow and the compelling set off an ongoing debate between the hopeful part of my brain, which wants to like a sci-fi-ish show dreamed up by executive producers J.J. Abrams and Eric Kripke, and the scarred part of my brain, which has been burned dozens of times by genre-flavoroed shows that had interesting elements or cast members but also disappointing executions and annoying younger characters. Raise your hand if you also sacrificed entire hours of your life to those damned kids on "Terra Nova" and that [expletive] Tyler on "V." Hell yes I'm gun-shy (or rather, musket-shy).

Anyway, the "Revolution" debate in my head goes something like this:

Hopeful Part of Brain: "Look at this cast -- well, half of it anyway! Giancarlo Esposito is great as a general in the militia that is running a big chunk of the country. He effortlessly owns the screen every time he appears. That has to count for something!"

Scarred Part of Brain: "Sure, but this is not a show that centers on his character, Captain Neville -- the first episode involves a quest led by a young woman, Charlie Matheson (Tracy Spiridakos), who fails to make any kind of impression. Admit it, when you re-watched the pilot recently, you spent the whole time imagining what 'Revolution' would have been like had the show been able to cast someone with the chops of a Katee Sackhoff or a Jennifer Lawrence."

HPB: "OK, fine, that's true, but what about Billy Burke? He plays an acerbic, cynical but awesome Han Solo type in 'Revolution' and he's terrific. Surely his character, Miles Matheson, is going to be a big part of the show going forward. And you were always the biggest Juliet supporter in the 'Lost' fandom, so you have to be happy Elizabeth Mitchell's in the mix. As for your worries about whether the storytelling will become convoluted or overly convenient, here's my biggest card to play: When he was showrunner of 'Supernatural,' Kripke did an exemplary job of telling weekly stories filled with suspense, wit and emotional stakes, and the show's mythology never became too arcane or contradictory. You have to admit that there's no better choice to tell a road trip story about characters under pressure."

SPB: "Granted, Kripke did a fine job on 'Supernatural.' But first of all, are you seriously forgetting how underused Mitchell was on 'V'? And speaking of 'Supernatural,' you only became addicted to that show after its stars proved that they were far more than pretty faces. Do you really think the Abercrombie and Fitch-y younger members of the cast will be up to the job, assuming this show gets isn't canceled in two months?"

HPB: "Hey, you've only seen the 'Revolution' pilot! And even you admit that the similar 'Falling Skies' got way better in its second season. Why won't you let me be hopeful about J.J.'s new project, given how much you like 'Fringe' and how much you warmed up to 'Person of Interest'?"

SPB: "Oh, I don't know, because when it comes to post-'Lost' genre-flavored shows, shows like 'Fringe' and 'Falling Skies' are the exceptions that prove the rule? Honestly, you are like Charlie Brown and the networks are like Lucy with the football. They play you for a sucker every damn time!"

And on and on it goes. I am torn between the competence of the "Revolution" pilot and the fact that, over the long haul, none of the broadcast network shows with genre overtones have ever consistently had a tenth of the wit, audacity or depth of the mothership, i.e., "Lost."

Will "Revolution" be able to inject its tech-dystopia with real stakes if it's hard to care whether the younger characters live or die? Will it be one of those shows where the Big Concept crowds out the construction of a believable world and compelling relationships? I simply don't know, and I have to get back to my electronic devices, so I'll close this post with two thoughts.

First, I put some of those questions to Kripke in an interview that I'll post Tuesday, after "Revolution's" premiere. Second, only time will tell whether this show will finally break the curse of every show from "FlashForward" to "V" to "The Event" and "Invasion" and "Terra Nova" and "V" and a dozen other shows I've spent too much time rewriting in my head.

Seriously, I want "Revolution" to work, despite the fact that positive experiences with dramas like this are more rare than NBC's accidental encounters with healthy ratings -- they're just too inconsistent to believe in. One thing you can be sure of: I'll assess the show again in the coming months, once I decide which part of my brain was right.

Note: Here's my recent interview with Esposito, who talked "Breaking Bad," "Revolution" and his Emmy nomination. And look for that Kripke interview Tuesday morning.

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