When the World Lost Power: A Look at the Pilot for NBC’s “Revolution”

“We need water! Fill the sinks and tubs. We don’t have much time…It’s all going to turn off, and it’s never going to turn back on!”

Those words launch executive producer J.J. Abrams’ new NBC series, “Revolution,” which debuts on Monday Sept. 17 at 10pm Eastern/9pm Central.

The “it” to which Chicago resident Ben Matheson (Tim Guinee) refers in those lines is power: not just a loss of electricity that keeps the lights from working, but power in general. Car batteries die, water supply systems stop working, planes fall out of the sky. In an instant, the luxuries and necessities the world has become used to disappear, returning everyone to the days of “Little House on the Prairie” by way of “The Hunger Games.”

Why? As one character says, “Physics went insane. The world went insane overnight and nobody knows why.”

Of all the shows premiering this Fall, “Revolution” has arguably the most intriguing premise because it’s presenting our society with its worst nightmare. We’ve come to rely on electricity and batteries so much that we’ve lost a lot of practical knowledge on how to accomplish things without them.

More importantly, as the episode points out, people died in the aftermath of the power outage because medicines couldn’t be produced. Fires raged uncontrollably because fire trucks couldn’t get to them. This goes way beyond not being able to use your iPhone 5 to record video of your kitten riding the vacuum cleaner; it’s a matter of life and death.

And when the power went out, the United States government lost power as well, leaving the country to be ruled by localized militias wielding crossbows, swords, and the few remaining guns.

As interesting as that scenario sounds, it won’t connect with viewers if the show doesn’t have relatable characters through which to experience this new world. “Revolution’s” pilot spends most of its time introducing them, the first of which is Ben Matheson. Before the power goes out, he downloads a computer file onto a small chip that will come into play in the future. Then he rides out the aftermath with his wife, Rachel (“Lost’s” Elizabeth Mitchell), and their kids, Charlie (short for Charlotte) and Danny.

The series then jumps ahead 15 years. The Mathesons – minus Rachel who is presumed dead (repeat: presumed) – now live in a rural, commune-like farming community. Charlie (Tracy Spiridakos) is the Katniss Everdeen of the family, going out hunting and exploring with her bow and arrow. Her only connection to a past she never fully knew is a “Return of the Jedi” lunch box filled with postcards of New York, Chicago, and other places.

While she’s away, a local militia arrives led by Captain Tom Neville (Giancarlo Esposito) who works for General Sebastian Monroe. He is looking for Ben Matheson and his brother, Miles. When Ben identifies himself, Neville tries to arrest him.

To protect Ben, Danny and the other townsfolk draw swords, crossbows, and even a few firearms, which are illegal under the militia’s rule. In the brief battle that follows, Ben is shot in the heart. Captain Neville arrests Danny instead, taking him along in their continuing search for Miles (Billy Burke).

Charlie hears gunshots and returns to town before her father dies. He tells her she needs to find Miles in Chicago, so he can help them get Danny back. Specifically, Ben describes Miles, a former Marine, as “good at killing.”

Desperate to connect with what little family she has left, Charlie sets out for Chicago the next day with Ben’s girlfriend, Maggie, and the local teacher/former Google mogul, Aaron. Neither Charlie or Maggie know, however, that Ben gave Aaron the computer chip we saw in the episode’s first scene for safe keeping. The implication is that the chip contains secret information, either about why the power went out or how to restore it.

Like most pilots of TV series, “Revolution” feels like a lot of set up and introduction. The characters all hold promise, especially Charlie and Miles who creator Eric Kripke developed to have a Luke Skywalker/Han Solo dynamic. Charlie is the naïve, gung-ho, adventure-seeking idealist. Miles is the world-weary warrior who would have preferred to keep to himself. Both actors are more than up to the job.

The supporting characters have potential too. Aaron, for instance, provides comic relief when he says of himself, “Eighty million dollars in the bank, and I would trade it all right now for a roll of Charmin.” Also, as a villain, Captain Neville does a good job of doing bad things without necessarily seeming like that bad a person.

That said, future episodes of “Revolution” need to ratchet up the character development in order to keep viewers interested. It would also be great to see some larger themes come into play, like in other series which J.J. Abrams has executive produced. For all the mysteries about the island, “Lost” was really about its characters’ quests for redemption. And “Fringe” often addresses the ethical boundaries of scientific advances (which I wrote about in this piece).

I’d like to see “Revolution” do something similar. Maybe explore our over-reliance on technology. Or consider the human dynamics of why some people chose to live peacefully after power was lost, while others sought to establish themselves as rulers by force.

Current governmental and societal standards could be examined by looking at them from the point of view of people who have lost them. How did millionaires like Aaron, for instance, adjust to this new world? There’s also the fact that people can no longer communicate long distance or fill their time with diversions like surfing the net. They have to actually get to know the people around them. How’s that working out in terms of developing relationships? Are the bonds between people stronger?

Even religion could be touched on by looking at the spiritual lives of people who have lost the only way of life they’ve ever known. For some, the earth’s new situation could create doubt that a good God is watching over us. Others might believe that God will guide humanity through these troubles just like He led the Israelites through the desert.

With its interesting premise and core group of characters, “Revolution” has the makings of an engaging action/adventure show. But I hope it also fulfills its promise of being more than that. I’ll be sticking around for a while to see if a world without power can result in powerful storytelling.

About Tony Rossi

After graduating from St. John's University in New York with degrees in Communications and English, Tony Rossi found a job at the Catholic media organization, The Christophers, that allowed him to indulge his interest in religion, media, and pop culture. He served as The Christophers' TV producer for 11 years, and is currently the host and producer of the organization's radio show/podcast Christopher Closeup, writer and editor of their syndicated Light One Candle column, and producer/scriptwriter of the annual Christopher Awards ceremony.

  • Ted Seeber

    Almost as bad a premise as Lost. There is a *reason* why our military and police do wilderness survival training, and I know plenty of people here in Oregon who have NOT lost the ability to live without electricity (and in fact, revel in it).

  • Vision_From_Afar

    This is just a bastardized, religiously-stripped version of S.M. Stirling’s “Dies the Fire” series. I’ll pass.

  • Em

    Revolution seems to be loosely based on a book called Dies the Fire, by S. M. Stirling. The book deals quite a bit with religion, though it mostly focuses on non-Christian religions.

  • stevek

    Just a note about how bad the physics of this show really is … the human body (cells) run on electricity, as well as our brains (neurons) and so on. Losing the power grid is believable, losing the ability to generate electricity means that mechanical motion can’t transfer energy to electrons. If that can’t happen (goodbye, Maxwell’s Laws) the human body can not operate either.

    • Chad

      It must be a man-made phenomena– Earth only– because if the human body couldn’t operate, neither would the stars. They would just cease to exist, i.e. No sun.

  • scott

    People don’t look too deep into the details… its TV why should it be like real life? Anyhow, I like the show so far but to believe no bullets exist or that we would revert back to revolutionary war guns vs civil war mini balls is a leap. Also to not be able to generate any electricity is a bit out there. With the exception of rechargeable batteries no battery has solid state tech which would be wiped out from physics gone crazy but a reg Duracell should be fine.

    Was it a solar flare, emp or what that wiped out the power? Like lost this will drive me nuts for months to come. I wish they did not skip ahead so far. The meltdown of society would have made an interesting story line. Character development could have happened during this timeframe and maybe people would relate to how it unfolds.

    I would hope this work of fiction helps people realize thatlarge scale catastrophes can, do and will happen even in the USA. Learning basic skills and preparing for these potential events are a good thing and fun for the family… think real camping and the such.

    • Tony Rossi

      Hi Scott…I read that they will be exploring what happened in the aftermath of the power outage through regular flashbacks – and that they’ll explain what caused the outage during Season 1.