Revolution, Ep 1.01, “Pilot” Fully commits to its brave new world

Revolution, Season 1, Episode 1: “Pilot”
Written by Eric Kripke
Directed by Jon Favreau
Airs Mondays at 10pm ET on NBC (starting 9/17)

Revolution’s first episode is a must-see introduction to a well-crafted post-apocalyptic world.  Many critics and San Diego ComicCon attendees have ranked it as one of the best of this year’s television crop and even for first-time viewers, it will keep your attention for forty-two minutes.  Those curious don’t need to wait – although it airs next Monday, the pilot is online now on Hulu and other portals.

Big names like Executive Producer J.J. Abrams, Director Jon Favreau, and of course, the creator of cult favorite Supernatural, Eric Kripke, can easily get 10+ million viewers in the door.  The trouble is whether what’s behind that door is enough to make people care without overwhelming them with too many plot threads, characters, or expository conversations.  Since Lost hit big, there have been many examples of complex fantasy serials: some too thick (The Event, Flash Forward), some too thin (Alcatraz), and some just right (Fringe, Jericho).  The good news is that, at least for now, Revolution fits in the “just right” category and the network, desperate for a post-Voice hit, are promoting it well.

While no one could claim the show is original, Revolution does a lot to create a believable, lived-in reality filled with flawed human beings behaving in the usual ways.  These familiar elements help ground the story when unfamiliar plot points arrive. While the mysterious permanent blackout is a major event that propels the rising action, far more attention is paid to the quest unfolding fifteen years later.  The opening sequence is quick, frightening, and raises a lot of questions; for example, all batteries stop working, the Blackout seems planned or inevitable, and three men know some of what’s to come.  However, this is only the episode’s prologue, a smart move since it gives viewers only slightly more information than the main characters.

After a brief history lesson, the episode begins anew. Kripke wisely keeps it in the Matheson family, continuing in the same community, or one just like it.  The small children are grown, their mother has somehow died, and the amazing Maggie (more on her later) has joined the family unit.  Otherwise, an adapted form of the “American Dream” is still alive.  Dutiful daughter Charlie helps out her father, keeps tabs on her brother Danny, and hunts with her bow and arrow.  The only rule she breaks is wandering off, and that’s a big one since roaming militias and bandits are an issue in the Monroe Republic. The similarities between Charlie and Katniss from The Hunger Games, though they’re there, are not too distracting with other characters to enjoy.

Another smart move is adding new characters slowly and effectively. In addition to introducing Charlie and her father Ben (the guy with the magic locket), we see surrogate mom Maggie treat Danny (the brother) for his asthma.  The family dynamic is clearly laid out.  We also meet some neighbors who happily treat Ben as trusted leader.  The most notable character is trusted family friend Aaron who provides needed levity and wisdom.  The fact that he used to live well on Google money is ironic and resonates.  All in all, it’s a wonderful day in the neighborhood until the militia rides in looking for Miles Matheson and, by extension, Ben.

There’s no better actor to lead the Monroe Militia posse than Giancarlo Esposito, whose dry delivery on Breaking Bad made him a reserved menace.  Here, his smile and almost pleasant demeanor may be even more unnerving.  He’ll shoot, kidnap, and torture a whole town all the same; it’s just business.  We do catch glimpses of his boss in flashback, but Captain Tom Neville is the first baddie in what’s sure to be a long list rivaling Arya’s on Game of Thrones.  The confrontation with the posse ends predictably as the one man who knows what’s going on is killed and the brother is held until Miles returns.

And so Charlie, Maggie, Aaron, and later addition Nate search for Uncle Miles in Chicago and find him quickly at a bar advertising Lou Malnati’s pizza, of course.  When Nate betrays the group, his allegiance to Monroe uncovered, a well-choreographed medieval fight ensues.  This type of sequence is definitely in Jon Favreau’s wheelhouse as the tense action demonstrates.  Unfortunately, the Chicago mission is full of plot shortcuts and conventional action.  This is a place in the story where risks could’ve been taken to try something more inventive or clever.  Still, it’s a minor issue.  The sequence succeeds in saving time and showing us that the questmates are quite capable fighters.

That brings us to the two big reveals of the night: Miles was a friend of Sebastian Monroe and power is available to owners of the magic lockets.  The first revelation indicates that this political situation may have personal motivations too.  A possible link to the U.S. government is also something to follow.  The second revelation is presented through Grace, a woman who tries to harbor Danny.  Her small role is memorable and hopefully recurring.  The fact that some form of the Internet still exists opens more speculation but hints at the reason why the show is named Revolution.

Eric Kripke has created a makeshift family unit that serves as the focus, much like Supernatural‘s Winchester boys.  His storytelling abilities are solid and might just make the whole thing work.  The cast definitely helps as well.  Esposito of course kills it.  Billy Burke (Twilight) really pulls off the tortured man of action but the rest are relative unknowns.  That’s the last smart move.  Tracy Spiridakos plays Charlie as a strong young woman without overdoing it.  The standout actors are Anna Lise Phillips as Maggie (badass is the only word), Zak Orth as Aaron, and Maria Howell as Grace. Graham Rogers does a good job as Danny. While it’s hard to evaluate the work of Elizabeth Mitchell (V, Lost), David Lyons (The Cape), or Tim Guinee (The Good Wife) with such little screen time, they each pull their weight.  Unfortunately, Nate (JD Pardo) barely registers as anything more than a plot device.

There is a lot of potential here, but will it translate to an epic serial that’s continually promoted by NBC?  Ask again in fifteen years.

Matt Marquissee

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