Published September 13. 2012 4:00AM
NBC's lineup needs some extra voltage. But can "Revolution" be the show that will give prime-time dramas a much-needed jolt?
Electricity-related puns aside, this costly, after-the-lights-go-out drama is probably NBC's biggest bet this year, not to mention the most-anticipated new fall show, according to Facebook and Twitter data. "Revolution" is so key to the beleaguered network's hopes that executives are plugging it into the high-visibility 10 p.m. Monday spot opposite a pair of popular but somewhat vulnerable crime shows, CBS' "Hawaii Five-0" and ABC's "Castle."
"Revolution" has the high-concept premise of a potential blockbuster. Among the most costly new shows, with an estimated per-episode price tag of approximately $3 million, "Revolution" revolves around a far-fetched setup: 15 years after a mysterious blackout, America has been transformed into an overgrown, feudal Middle-Earth where good but mostly powerless people struggle against evil warlords. It's a cautionary tale for technology-obsessed 21st century Americans addicted to everything from smartphones to, well, appliance-generated ice.
"Everyone knows how frustrating it is to be in a blackout," Eric Kripke, the show's creator and a writer-producer best known for CW's "Supernatural," said in a recent interview. "I think everyone senses somewhere deep in their animal instinct that we're overextended. We're precariously balanced. ... None of us knows how to find food and water if we need to."
But just in case a warning about over-reliance on Androids and iPhones might not be enough to push viewers to watch, "Revolution" has a secret weapon.
All right, maybe not so secret. But this power source gives the show a few more amperes than it might otherwise have. One recent morning said power source breezed into his hip Santa Monica office sporting glasses with his signature dark frames, as well as a plaid shirt, black boots and jeans. He was fresh from a two-month vacation in Maine wedged in between editing sessions on his new "Star Trek" movie.
"Revolution" enjoys the distinction of being a J.J. Abrams show. And that means a lot.
Abrams, who is an executive producer on "Revolution," cannot guarantee a show's success, of course. But his involvement doesn't hurt.
He was the mastermind behind "Lost" and "Alias," two influential TV dramas in recent years. "Lost," a rambling desert-island fantasy that ended a six-season run on ABC in 2010, became the ur-text for serialized storytelling on TV, its plot an intricate (and, detractors would say, ultimately pointless) farrago of mysteries, red herrings and recurrent motifs.
"Alias," which ran from 2001 to 2006, was a spy drama starring Jennifer Garner that was so breathtakingly byzantine that Abrams himself says he sometimes got mixed up in the jumble of story elements. But it's the kind of show he loves making. (Another Abrams show, "Person of Interest," is returning for its second season on CBS.)
"That show was so crazy confounding," Abrams said of "Alias" in an interview at Bad Robot, his production company in Santa Monica. He did not mean for that assessment to be taken as a criticism. "I think in general shows that have ongoing story lines are infinitely better than shows that don't."
But both Abrams and Kripke - who were interviewed separately for this story - were quick to minimize their new show's reliance on "mythology," or the secrets slowly revealed that will then endlessly be unpacked by fans, completists and Twitter users who band over such minutiae.
In the wake of "Lost," serialized programs were suddenly in vogue. But the format has become strained in recent years, as viewers have shrugged off shows that are seen as requiring heavy commitment. NBC executives have first-hand experience with the phenomenon: A couple seasons back, the lavish sci-fi drama "The Event" fizzled despite relentless promotion.
Kripke originally pitched Abrams the idea of a swashbuckling fantasy in a post-apocalyptic America. "I was picturing two guys having a full-on, 'Lord of the Rings' sword fight," Kripke recalled. "But instead of some ancient English Stonehenge-like structure, they were having it in front of a vine-covered Starbucks."
Abrams liked the idea but wanted to tweak the apocalyptic element by adding a notion first dreamed up by his producing partner, Bryan Burk. That story, never fully sketched out, involved everyone's electrical and battery power suddenly disappearing. No more artificial lights, no more cars, no more smartphones.
The pilot ultimately written by Kripke starts 15 years after the mysterious blackout. Charlie Matheson (Tracy Spiridakos) - a precocious young woman armed with a crossbow, apropos of this year's film smash "The Hunger Games" - treks to Chicago to find her uncle, Miles (Billy Burke), dodging villains on horseback and trying to reestablish the U.S.
So how did the power go out?
Abrams promises that the mystery will be revealed fairly early in Season 1, but adds that the answer doesn't really matter anyway (although some fans invariably will disagree).
"If 'Revolution' is relying on 'How'd the power go out?,' that's not really a show," Abrams said, munching on almonds as a midmorning snack as young staffers buzzed past and greeted him. "It's a gimmick that allows you to tell stories."
Dramas have not had an easy time on broadcast networks lately, and NBC has perhaps endured the worst. Virtually its entire slate of new shows flopped last year, including the crime retread "Prime Suspect" and the 1960s period piece "The Playboy Club." "Smash," the midseason entry set in the world of Broadway musicals, has hardly lived up to its name.
So "Revolution" is NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt's bid to make sparks fly again. He may have his work cut out for him: While the Facebook data suggests high initial tune-in, a roundup of TV critics on Huffington Post delivered underwhelming verdicts on the pilot.
The network bosses say that, Abrams association aside, they aren't necessarily aiming for another "Lost."
"We're not finding a hatch and finding a whole other world," said Jen Salke, NBC's president of entertainment. "What it comes down to is the intimacy of the storytelling."