‘Revolution’ Review: Built on Good Ideas but Needs Big Personalities

Drama about a world without energy premieres tonight to big expectations

NBC's "Revolution" has the best concept of any new fall show. It imagines life after a worldwide power outage forces humanity to live without cars, cell phones, or any of the other modern conveniences that give our lives meaning and annoy us to no end.

It's both a horrific and idyllic scenario. With no power, planes plunge from the sky and calls are dropped. But once those initial horrors are dispensed with, life is slower-paced, more difficult, and perhaps more meaningful. Going to see your uncle in Chicago means hiking to Chicago, through a newly lush and green America, lit — where it is lit at all — by gas lamp.

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The show has a great pedigree — "Lost" creator J.J. Abrams executive produces with "Supernatural" creator Eric Kripke, and Jon Favreau directs tonight's pilot. NBC obviously has high hopes for the show, giving it a plum time slot after its biggest hit, "The Voice."

The problem? Viewers don't want to stare at foliage and gas lamps for an hour on television each night, for the same reason they don't like to stare at them in real life. All those phones and tablets and TVs have accelerated our appetite for action — or at least the illusion that important things are happening.

So "Revolution" needs a gripping story and compelling characters, and doesn't have enough of either, yet. I have high hopes that will change once the setup is out of the way.

A lot happens in the pilot, but it feels like a grab-bag of ideas and potential hooks. It's the same problem that afflicted NBC's last big-idea sci-fi show, "The Event," and Fox's "Terra Nova." In their calculated attempts to offer a little something for everyone, they forgot that characters keep us coming back every week.

Like almost every sci-fi show that has come since "Lost," "The Event," and "Terra Nova" have copied its worst element — too many throwaway mysteries which will never be fully resolved. But the best part of "Lost" was its deeply damaged and conflicted characters, from the felonious Kate Austen to the lovable-but-underestimated Hurley.

"Revolution" could use more big personalities. It has too many generically good-looking people behaving inoffensively, who we are supposed to like simply because TV needs protagonists,  and here they are. It centers around the Mathesons, whose boring-family-next-store name tips you off to their blandness.

The most cynical read of the show is that it devised an umbrella concept — the lights go out — to allow them to copy trends that have worked in recent hits. Like the swordfights on "Game of Thrones"? We've got swords! Like the archery in "The Hunger Games"? We've got a crossbow! Don't worry about who's wielding them, or why.

But let's give the show the benefit of the doubt, since archery and swords would have their place in a world devoid of energy. (So would guns. Their use is more tighly regulated in the low-tech future of "Revolution" than at any other time in American history before the widespread use of electricity. We look forward to understanding why.)

Most of "Revolution" takes place 15 years after the blackout. Our prescribed heroes are living the slow and honest life in their village when a militia group, headed up by "Breaking Bad" star Giancarlo Esposito, arrives to bigfoot around the way the British did at the start of "The Patriot."

A Matheson is taken away, and his friends and loved ones must band together to get help from his uncle in Chicago. Another Matheson, played by Tim Guinee, is one of the few people who knows the cause of the blackout.

And there's another secret, which we learn at the end of the episode, which has the potential to Change Everything.

Only the bad guys stand out, notably Esposito, who "Breaking Bad" fans know as one of the best actors working today. He brings a welcome sense of menace to the pilot, but doesn't get enough to do. Let's trust that the show is smart enough to make much more use of him down the line.

J.D. Pardo also gets to be interesting, because his loyalties are in question. And Zak Orth is pleasant enough, as a former Google executive who now finds his skill set useless. He's supposed to be our Hurley — not quite our surrogate, but a teddy bear we can grip through the weird or dull moments.

I'd like to one day root for Tracy Spiridakos as the Katniss Everdeen-like Charlotte "Charlie" Matheson. But it takes more than good looks, a tomboyish nickname and a crossbow. Give her some Kate Austen-style conflict.

"Revolution" airs at 10/9c on NBC.