You know the drill: Something goes wrong and most everyone dies, but not the pretty people, who are left to congregate in dystopian survival, their days lived out as a series of cliff-hanging tests of character. Because of our mutual paranoia that the things we love most cannot possibly last — America, the Constitution, gasoline, temperate weather, Medicare — the preferred storytelling genre so far in the 21st century has been all-apocalypse, all the time. As a compelling backdrop, the end of the world is hard to beat.
It’s the how that fascinates. Will it be nuclear war? (Yawn, so Reagan-era, so Generation X — and it tends to leave the survivors covered in radiation burns, which is not a good look.) Incurable virus? (I am still shamefully delighted by the memory of Gwyneth Paltrow’s patient-zero autopsy in last year’s Stephen Soderbergh film “Contagion.”) Alien invasion is still an attractive option, too. But the top choice, by popular vote, has to be zombie apocalypse. People love this option so much that they now dress as zombie flash mobs and shuffle along the streets. (Curious, isn’t it, that it’s uncool to play the humans?)
NBC’s hammy but undeniably interesting new Monday night drama “Revolution” is branded with executive producer J.J. Abrams’s name as a lure for some and as a warning to others. It proffers yet one more means toward civil collapse: The permanent loss of all mechanical and electrical power. In the first episode, worried father Ben (Tim Guinee) rushes home to his wife (Elizabeth Mitchell of “Lost” and “V”) and kids with urgent demands to fill bathtubs and water jugs. It’s happening, he says, frantically downloading some top-secret something from his laptop to a thumb drive.
Within seconds, the lights start flickering, the Bugs Bunny cartoon that has young daughter Charlie and toddler son Danny so enraptured zaps off the flat screen. All around the globe, the power to everything goes out. Combustible engines grind to a halt on freeways. And most horrifyingly, planes plummet from the sky. And may I just say? The makers of “Revolution” could have ordered up a whole lot more scenes of planes falling from the sky. After all, our lingering anxiety about Sept. 11 is what brought us these sort of shows in the first place.
Flash-forward 15 years. Actually, please don’t ever say “flash forward” in my presence. Not only is it a tired segue, it brings back too many awful memories of TV dramas that tried and failed to fill the “Lost” void.
Fifteen years later: We find Ben and his grown children living somewhat peacefully in a cul-de-sac village of former McMansions turned cooperative farming community. In a sort of clunky opening monologue delivered by former high-tech geek Aaron (Zak Orth) to young children of the village, who never knew life with power, we learn that the United States is now a medieval land of fractured republics ruled by militias.
The cities are flooded, rusted and otherwise laid to waste (cue shots of a broken Golden Gate bridge and St. Louis Arch; an abandoned U.S. capitol in a nest of kudzu, reminiscent of “Logan’s Run”). The only survivors went rural, where they seem to have made do. The women still have tawny highlights and sculpted eyebrows. The men have devised some way of maintaining three-day stubble besides the Wahl beard trimmer. There must still be a Target around here somewhere, judging from the slim-cut jeans and new tank tops.
Said militiamen, representing the evil Monroe Republic, arrive at the village on horseback, led by Capt. Tom Neville (played by the welcome sight of “Breaking Bad’s” Giancarlo Esposito), looking for Ben, and, ostensibly, his magic thumb drive. A bow-and-arrow shootout ensues, and Ben dies. (This is not so much of a spoiler as an indication that we will now probably only see him in flashbacks — Abrams’s preferred narrative twist.) The soldiers take young Danny prisoner.
Accompanied by Aaron and her stepmother, the Katniss-like Charlie (Tracy Spiridakos), armed with her bow and arrows, sets off for the ruins of Chicago to find her long lost uncle (Billy Burke as Miles), a former Marine sergeant, who is also being sought by the militia for the secrets he might know about restoring power.
Here, “Revolution” starts pushing its 20-page lease agreement toward you. Will you sign on for its convoluted saga, whether it lasts just a few episodes or drags on for years? Networks are understandably feeling singed by the complex, past-present-past action adventure series, but we can all agree that the prospect of a good one remains a tantalizing proposition.
I’m on the fence. In just one episode, “Revolution” feels already too rushed (trying to beat the cancellation clock, no doubt), concerned more with its melodrama and sword fights than easing us into the idea of what it’s like to cope without power. My favorite scene is a brief memory Charlie has of her family eating all the ice cream the night the lights went out — her only taste of the stuff. “Revolution” has a way of relegating its most intriguing material to that of backdrop. We barely see the subdivision village before we leave it behind. Explaining was never a priority for Abrams and company.
As Charlie and Aaron consider bunking down for the night in an old jetliner at O’Hare, he lets it casually slip that he used to own one. “I used to work at this place called Google,” he tells the young woman, who doesn’t know what that is. “Eighty million dollars in the bank, and I would trade it all right now for a roll of Charmin.”
That’s the post-apocalypse human-interest drama I want to watch. “Revolution” instead plunges itself into something that’s more of a combination of “The Hunger Games” and an old-fashioned weekend of reenactments at Antietam. Besides Esposito, the ensemble cast makes no lasting first impression, afflicted with trite dialogue and the same uniform blandness that dragged down Fox’s ambitious “Terra Nova.”
And yet, just when I sensed my interest flagging, a character — ahem, spoiler alert — unlocks a closet, activates a charm necklace, boots up an old C drive and dials up a rudimentary Internet. The mind reels with possibility, and even hope, which is why we keep coming back to stories like these.
(one hour) premieres Monday at 10 p.m. on NBC.