When the lights – and all computers, telephones, car engines, and batteries – go off permanently and seemingly forever during the pilot of “Revolution,” the audience is left in the dark for only one or two minutes. Then, 15 years later, sunlight shines on a rural village, its good guy leader is killed by one of the militias that roam a dystopian America, and a fascinating idea becomes trapped in a mixture of stereotyped characters and stereotyped plot.
The pretty teenage children of the dead man –the girl Charlie (Tracy Spiridakos) and the boy Danny (Graham Rogers) – come from central casting. On Charlie’s journey to the ruined city of Chicago to find her uncle, Miles Matheson (Billy Burke), nothing happens that is unexpected, including the long fight in which Burke shows how good he is at killing people.
“Revolution” may become a commercial success for NBC which desperately needs a successful drama and is spending about $3 million an episode to get one. Among “Revolution’s” executive producers is the golden J.J. Abrams who created “Lost,” which started network television’s surge into serialized drama.
The pilot of “Revolution” was seen by more people in the desirable 18-49 age range than the pilot of any drama since “V” in 2009. Of course, “V” – aliens move among us -- barely managed a second season, and two other series with high concepts and huge audiences for the pilot – NBC’s “Bionic Woman” and Steven Spielberg’s “Terra Nova” -- people share the world with dinosaurs – died at the end of their first year.
Television is a huge electronic ocean, and there is swimming room for every viewer. I myself am semi-addicted to a USA drama called “Suits” which will never be nominated for any award. But none of the drama Emmy glory that will be doled out Sunday night and remember will accrue to CBS, NBC, ABC, or FOX. Two of the nominees for best drama series, “Boardwalk Empire” and “Game of Thrones,” are made by HBO; two, “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” are made by AMC; “Downton Abbey” is PBS; and “Homeland” comes from Showtime.
It has been years since I have watched more than the first episode of any network television drama, yet I have reveled in every episode of five of those six nominees. (To my chagrin, I found myself unable to watch a show about a terminal lung cancer victim who becomes a drug dealer.) The difference between these dramas and “Revolution” can be defined as characters versus characteristics (Danny has asthma attacks; Charlie is sullen and carries a crossbow, shades of Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games” who carried a longbow); and texture versus a smooth surface.
More than anything else, the cable shows and their characters surprise you. In one episode of “Mad Men” last year, the womanizing Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is the only member of his group to refuse the pleasures of the classy whorehouse to which the agency partners have taken a client. That understated decision says everything about Draper’s second marriage. “Game of Thrones” with its dragons and vengeful spirits should certainly be less believable than “Revolution,” but it is so well imagined and so thickly textured that its medieval world seems real. The morally ambiguous “Homeland” has as its protagonist an obsessive manic-depressive brilliantly played by Claire Danes who is made more believable by the restraint of marine sergeant Damian Lewis as a former prisoner of war who may now be a terrorist.
The networks, who still have a sure touch with comedy series, might want to start looking over their shoulders. Three of the six Emmy nominees for Best Comedy Series this year come from HBO – “Girls.” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and “Veep.”