The new season is upon us, so it's time to start looking at the pilots that made it to series at the broadcast networks. I'm always excited to see the new line-ups at the start of the fall, even though I know that pilots can be a mixed bag. Good starts can end up feeling like wasted time when the show goes to series, while mediocre introductions sometimes yield tremendous programs in the long run. My intent this year is to stay on top of all the shows that I review in this space during the next few weeks; I'm planning midseason re-reviews around the sixth episode of each. That way, I'll have a chance to see if the storylines and characters have developed, or if the show is merely marking time (or worse, wasting away).
First up is a look at a pair of hotly-anticipated drama series pilots. Both are from top TV producers and both offer distinct looks into a dark and frightening future. But one is surprisingly wobbly, while the other is among my favorites of the year.
NBC's high-concept drama "Revolution" -- from über-producer J.J. Abrams, "Supernatural" creator Eric Kripke and "Iron Man" director Jon Favreau -- tells the story of a world that has been plunged into darkness after the power supply was suddenly and irretrievably lost only 15 years before. The youngest people in this post-apocalyptic society have little-to-no recollection of a world where anything that remotely depended on electrical power actually worked. Chief among them is a teenage girl named Charlie, played by Tracy Spiridakos, whose father, Ben (played by Tim Guinee), may have played some part in the disaster. We meet him in the pre-credits sequence, running into his house carrying a box and ordering his wife (Elizabeth Mitchell) to start bottling water. "It's happening, isn't it?" she asks.
"Physics went crazy," says shaggy school teacher Aaron (Zak Orth) early in the pilot, after we've been shown this new world where famed American landmarks and skylines are either half-underwater or half-overgrown with weeds and grass and wildflowers. And it wasn't just physics that went out the window -- the delicate balance of society followed right behind. Roving gangs of thieves and killers stalk at the edges of the wilderness, while militias sprung up to seize control of different parts of a fractured continent.
Charlie, her brother (Danny, played by Graham Rogers) and her father live in a farming enclave with several other families, trying to stay out of the way of those who want control of this new world. But their fragile peace is shattered when members of a militia group, led by Captain Tom Neville (Giancarlo Esposito) ride into town, demanding that Ben come with them. When the people, led by Danny, try to rise to Ben's defense, it turns bloody -- and fatal for Ben. Neville and his men then arrest Danny and take him into custody. With his last breath, Ben tells Charlie to not go after Danny alone, but instead to travel to Chicago and find his estranged brother Miles (Billy Burke), an ex-military man who is now holed up in a crumbling luxury hotel. Once the group reaches him, he's a tough nut to crack, but -- after singlehandedly putting down an attack by a number of villainous militia soldiers -- he agrees to go with them.
This is a show that sounds great on paper, so I'm sorry to report that most of the pilot ends up being, well, kinda flat. The effects shots are impressive, like when the group walks past a weed-covered Wrigley Field, and Burke's climactic fight scene -- which is mostly fencing (!) -- is energetically staged and authentically exciting.
But several of the performances, especially the central one by Spiridakos, don't have any real spark or energy to them. Esposito, whose work on shows like "Homicide," "NYPD Blue," "Once Upon a Time" and "Breaking Bad" has earned him deserved plaudits, doesn't quite make Neville click. I liked Orth here, and Burke is pretty good too, but overall, the characters don't feel alive.
There are also a number of scenes that simply end too quickly, dissolving into others -- and a final scene that left me scratching my head, but not wondering what would happen next. "Revolution" feels like a show that would have benefited from being a two-hour pilot; there's a lot going on here, after all. In its current state, however, the show comes off rather truncated and rushed, with a lot of potentially important things not just left unspoken, but seemingly ignored. For the pilot only: Two stars (out of four).
ABC's "Last Resort" is a military thriller from Shawn Ryan ("The Shield," "The Unit") and Karl Gajdusek ("Dead Like Me") about the crew of the U.S.S. Colorado, a Navy submarine. While in the midst of day-to-day patrol operations, the vessel's captain, Marcus Chapman (played by Andre Braugher), receives an emergency message on a channel reserved for use only in the event of a nuclear attack on Washington, D.C. The message: Fire the Colorado's nuclear missiles at Pakistan.
Chapman and his second-in-command, Sam Kendal (Scott Speedman), start to follow orders, but the questions quickly start to bubble up -- and the primary one is why these terrifying orders came over the secondary channel. Chapman decides to call for official confirmation, but only reaches a mystery voice who won't answer his questions. When Chapman challenges the person on the other end, he's ordered relieved of command.
Kendal takes the phone, and when he too refuses to fire the missiles without a real explanation, the sub is targeted for destruction by an unidentified enemy. After evading the attack, in order to protect his boat and his crew, Chapman takes the vessel to a NATO outpost, seizes the island, and declares it the world's smallest nuclear nation in a televised broadcast from the outpost. "Test us," Chapman says to the world, and the people who tried to destroy his submarine in particular.
The pilot for "Last Resort" is good, gripping stuff, with some terrific performances and a dynamite script, one that's chock full of crackerjack dialogue. Braugher brings his usual strength and presence to the lead, but Speedman -- an actor I've been hot-and-cold on in previous roles -- is also quite good. The supporting players are strong too: Robert Patrick, Daniel Lissing, Daisy Betts and Autumn Reeser all turn in terrific, three-dimensional performances. (I really liked Lissing's mysterious Navy SEAL in particular; he has a scene on the island where he is confronted in a bar by the local crime boss and his henchman that contains some of the best "don't mess with me" dialogue I've heard in years.)
But I have my concerns. Can this plot be sustained over the course of a 22-episode network television season? Can the dialogue stay this crisp, this cutting?
I hope so, because I think "Last Resort" could be a serious contender for a Best of the Year slot. But we'll see. For the pilot only: Three and a half stars.
"Revolution" premieres Monday, Sept. 17 at 9 p.m. on NBC.
"Last Resort" premieres Thursday, Sept. 27 at 7 p.m. on ABC.
Content advisory: "Revolution" is rated TV-14, V, for some violent action scenes. There is also a scary sequence on an abandoned plane where the heroes are assaulted by a nasty trio of anonymous bandits, plus some squishy slice-and-dice sound effects during the episode's final fight sequence, but not much blood. "Last Resort" is rated TV-PG, and also contains some scenes of violence, although not much in terms of hand-to-hand combat.