Dear J.J. Abrams: Some thoughts about “Revolution”

Tracy Spiridakos and Billy Burke in NBC’s new series “Revolution,” about what happens to a family during a global electrical blackout.
Tracy Spiridakos and Billy Burke in NBC’s new series “Revolution,” about what happens to a family during a global electrical blackout.Trae Patton/abc via AP

Dear J.J. Abrams,

I don’t want to be a drama queen and get all we-need-to-talk-about-our-relationship on you. But I’m having major trust issues, and it’s time to share them before they corrode our long-term connection. It’s because I care about our future together, J.J. — more byzantine back stories, please, and more fake-Francie-ish camp! — that I am telling you this. With the premiere of your new NBC series, “Revolution,” tonight at 10 on Channel 7, it’s time to come clean and do some processing.

In the past decade, you’ve created wildly original and influential TV. You swept us off our feet with your two biggies, “Alias” and “Lost,” both of which gave TV’s sci-fi genre a much-needed kick in the Poindexter. Along with Joss Whedon, you emphasized character over story, and then you transformed story into a kind of extended algebraic formula. You took full advantage of what TV has to offer — time, incremental development, complication. “Fringe,” too, has been a unique piece of scientific murk. OK, so now you are a big movie macher , too, with “Super 8,” “Cloverfield,” and “Star Trek.” But you’ve had a far more profound and lasting effect on the medium of TV, so we call dibs.

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But over the years, through “Six Degrees,” “Undercovers,” and “Alcatraz,” you have run the risk of becoming simply an imprimatur, a stamp on a show that signifies it has passed muster in your “quality” and finance departments. With “Revolution,” I feel more than ever — more than I did even with the advent of your procedural “Person of Interest” — that you might be changing from a fabulous boutique operation into a bit of a factory. You may be in danger of becoming a Jerry Bruckheimer-type shop, losing the personal touch that brought such spark to your earlier work, including “Felicity.”

“Revolution” is just all right, no better, no worse. It’s a high concept story about what happens to the world, and one family in particular, after all electrical power goes dead. Set 15 years after the blackout, in a more agrarian society, the show finds a Katniss-esque teen girl named Charlie (Tracy Spiridakos) looking for answers about her father’s involvement in the mysterious event that led to darkness. Old West atmosphere, threats from militia villain Tom Neville (Giancarlo Esposito), and the mad sword-fighting skills of a cynical, hard-drinking uncle (Billy Burke) ensue. Also ensuing before the end of tonight’s premiere: Charlie’s asthmatic brother Danny (Graham Rogers) gets kidnapped and a thumb drive in a locket appears that could be the Answer to All.

What underwhelms me about your new show, J.J., is that it’s derivative of every serial sci-fi series of the past few years. “Revolution” is little more than yet another global mythology series set in the near future, with lots of paranoia and dirted-up costuming and post-apocalyptic landscapes. In other words, it feels like a vague Xerox of your own work. It’s as if you, like the producers of “The Event,” and “FlashForward” and “Heroes” and “Terra Nova,” are simply trying to assemble another “Lost.” Give us a catastrophe in the first episode, and then a thrown-together group of people looking for answers, plus at least one plane falling from the sky, and voila.

Of all people, you don’t need to come up with that kind of derivative TV. You don’t need to merely go through the motions — your imagination is better than that. “Lost” was magic in a bottle, at least until the finale — and it was your magic in that bottle, along with that of Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof. It was in the family tree of one of TV’s best-ever shows, “The Twilight Zone.” “Revolution” is more of a formulaic, impersonal construction. It isn’t an organic creation, so much as forced genetic manipulation of sci-fi characteristics. There’s no thrilling sense afoot that, as viewers, we have no clear sense of where all this might be heading. I feel as if I’ve already seen the first season of the show — the conspiracy, the flashbacks, the shockers — even though I’ve seen only one episode.

“Revolution” may catch on, if viewers are willing to put together a new TV puzzle knowing that the show could be canceled before answers are given. The premise is cool — a world without cellphones and computers and all the cool stuff we’re so addicted to right now. It’s a theme that may draw bigger numbers than the very similar but quickly canceled “Terra Nova” from last season. But still, the show feels like rehash to me, with overfamiliar characters, no matter how well it may do for you and for the needy NBC.

I want to trust you, J.J., to see your name and continue to get excited about the product it’s on. I don’t want to think of you as a manufacturing giant. Don’t let Bad Robot become a well-oiled machine.

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