The loose ends of J.J. Abrams

Who's going to save us from J.J. Abrams?

GC: We wanted to kick things off with the high-concept drama that’s brought J.J. Abrams back to a small screen near you: “Revolution.” (NB: he’s only the executive producer, but his fingerprints are all over it.) The premise ought to be compelling — the lights have gone out, and they’ll never come back on.

The show opens 15 years post-electricity to introduce the Matheson family, residents of an idyllic American commune. Enter Giancarlo Esposito as Captain Neville in the swaggering militia of the reigning Monroe Republic, the death of the family patriarch (who knows more than he’s telling about the show’s electrical mystery) and the abduction of his son Danny quickly follow. That leaves behind Central Blond Teenage Daughter, now with a pair of objectives: rescue her brother and seek out itinerant uncle Miles Matheson for aid and information about what happened 15 years ago.

SN: From there, “Revolution” walks right into the cliché that genre stories are high on setting, low on character development. Bow-wielding Central Blond Teenage Daughter (whose name is Charlie, I had to look it up) is a Katniss Everdeen knock-off, and her love interest Nate is your store-brand Taylor Lautner: hunky, expressionless, of dubious intentions.

The stale dialogue quashes any hope that these characters will grow and subvert expectations. What’s great is that there’s no such thing as subtext. Characters constantly, hilariously, over-explain themselves to each other:

“I can’t believe you’re sleeping with this hussy and betraying the memory of our mother, who — as you know — died soon after the blackout!”

“You think you’re grown up enough to hunt for food, but — as you know — it’s dangerous out there, and you have asthma, for which there is no longer medication!”

GC: That being said, Billy Burke as Miles Matheson is by far the brightest spot in the pilot for me. His resigned, “Yep, same shit as always” attitude hits just the right note, and I’d probably keep watching just to see him have another few reluctant but beautifully choreographed sword fights with the goons. It’s a Han Solo riff, sure, but it’s a good one.

I’m more worried about the nagging structural problems. One: the show’s weirdly disinterested attitude towards the consequences of its premise. Though the setting deserves a radical reinvention in light of the fact that, well, there’s no electricity, it’s weakly sketched, which is a shame when there’s such enormous potential for world-building.

I’m not talking about the aesthetics — the shots of overgrown Chicago are appropriately pretty — but about the epistemic stinginess. I can accept that there are no iPhones, but where have the combustion engines gone? Esposito’s spiel on the “Baltimore Act” banning firearms doesn’t really cut it either; show us why that makes sense in (or how it makes sense of) the post-blackout context, don’t just lay it out like an un-motivated law of physics.

Maybe I’m being unreasonably impatient, but after the incredibly fun pilot for “Last Resort,” I think the execution of the setting just wasn’t great. I know that Abrams would like to get at our anxieties about overconnectedness, I know he wants a Revolutionary Era vibe, but my feelings on this new way of life were weakly cued.

SN: If anything, the second episode screamed right-wing nightmare to me. People are executed for owning hunting rifles; the militia burns the (outlawed!?) American flag. It wasn’t so much the end of the world as we know it, as it is the end of Amurrica.

I’m usually a sucker for post-apocalyptic scenarios. Give me marauding gangs and a long road, even this stuff was borrowed from elsewhere. But Charlie’s road is 15 minutes long and the gangs don’t scare me.

GC: What makes all of these smaller failures so frustrating is that the commercial stakes for genre television are such a delicate negotiation — when your space opera tanks, the networks make more police procedurals and medical dramas. It’s not that I don’t like J.J. Abrams’ shows; I’m a “Fringe” watcher, albeit a begrudging one by now. It’s that he’s studiously squandering whatever cultural capital is available to science fiction.

SN: I actually gave up on watching “Fringe,” and watching “Revolution” has made me wonder if J.J. Abrams is really suited for television. He did a good job with the Star Trek reboot, but he seems to have problems starting from scratch and playing an idea out to its conclusion. Any given episode of “Fringe” has several ideas running full-throttle, each of which could totally shift the show’s essential paradigms: an evil corporation, an alternate universe attacking us, otherworldly agents who engineer fate. You end up with a jumble of plot twists totally evacuated of tension.

That weakness makes me wonder how future audiences will look back on “Lost.” At the time, I was pretty forgiving of the pseudo-spiritual finale. But maybe it wasn’t brilliant, atmospheric incoherence. Maybe J.J. Abrams just doesn’t finish what he starts.

Comments

  • HanSolo

    But how awesome was Star Trek. So awesome!