No electricity? No problem! How NBC — yes, NBC! — lit up the fall TV season with a retro-future look at a world gone dark

By James Hibberd
Updated November 02, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

This is how you pitch a TV show. J.J. Abrams (Lost, Person of Interest) and Eric Kripke (Supernatural) settled into their seats at NBC’s Burbank offices in the summer of 2011 to face the network’s executive team. After the niceties concluded, Abrams gestured out the window at the jam-packed 101 freeway in the distance. ”Look out the window here, at this crazy rat race of life in L.A.,” Abrams said. ”Now imagine right now that everything stopped.”

The executives leaned in.

Not just the cars and lights outside, Abrams continued, but electronics inside the office, too — computers, BlackBerrys, everything is dead. How do you get home? Where are your kids, your parents? How do you reach them?

It was exactly the sort of sky-high concept NBC wanted. The network hadn’t launched a hit drama since 2006’s Heroes, and executives believed only a bold idea could lure viewers back to the network. ”No one was in more need of a hit than we were,” says NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke. ”We couldn’t just put out a cop show.” NBC needed a Revolution.

And it all started with a mental image of two men sword-fighting in front of a Starbucks. That was Kripke’s original flash of inspiration for the show, a surreal postapocalyptic vision he quickly evolved into a quest story centered on a teenage heroine. He took the idea to Abrams, who added the zeitgeisty blackout hook. ”I liked that the show didn’t rely on answering why the power went off and how do we get it back on,” Abrams says. ”It just provided a context for the story Eric wanted to tell.”

That story follows a teenage girl named Charlie (Tracy Spiridakos) who teams with her long-lost warrior uncle Miles (Billy Burke) to rescue her kidnapped brother Danny (Graham Rogers) 15 years after the world has fallen into electricity-free chaos. The country has split into several militia-controlled territories (except Texas, which is, hilariously, still Texas), with our heroes in an eastern region ruled by the villainous General Monroe (David Lyons). Nothing electrical works — save a dozen mysterious pendants that may hold the key to turning the lights back on.

After getting the green light, producers quickly scooped up Giancarlo Esposito, hot off his Emmy-nominated performance on AMC’s Breaking Bad, to play Monroe’s congenially psychotic Capt. Tom Neville. ”What got me was it felt like a Western and that Tom could be a loose cannon,” Esposito says. ”He’s somebody that didn’t have any power [before the Blackout] and now might get a little crazy with it.”

But casting the Han Solo-inspired Miles proved far tougher. Production started on the pilot with the role unfilled and Burke on board as Monroe. Then Kripke and director Jon Favreau watched the actor — best known as Bella’s glum dad, Charlie, in the Twilight films — dominate a scene as the show’s villain. ”[We realized] anyone we cast as Miles he’s going to blow off the screen,” Kripke says. Demurs Burke, ”Yeah, if I were a TV producer I don’t know if I would have seen it. But there’s so much more of me in Miles than Charlie Swan.”

Once the pilot was shot, producers boosted the show’s geek cred by recasting Charlie’s mother with Elizabeth Mitchell (Lost, V), whose character — though currently imprisoned — will eventually get to show off her butt-kicking skills. ”My action background comes into play,” Mitchell says. ”I get to come home with lovely bruises, which I get to watch change colors.”

With the pieces in place, Revolution premiered Sept. 17 in the now-prime Mondays-at-10-p.m. slot following The Voice, to 15.7 million viewers (including DVR playback); those numbers made it the biggest new-drama debut of the season, and the biggest among the adults 18-49 demographic on any network show in three years. Kripke felt ”stunned relief” at the performance, though Salke says she wasn’t surprised viewers would find the no-tech premise appealing. ”What really grabs people is the ‘what if’ of it,” she says. ”It’s coming to a head — this technology in people’s lives — it takes you away from your family. It’s resonated with people in a way those other shows didn’t.”

Predecessors include a boneyard of post-Lost serialized sci-fi epics like FlashForward, V, Terra Nova, Alcatraz, and NBC’s own non-Event. So far, Revolution has avoided the worrisome ratings declines that plagued those shows, but everybody involved knows it’s far too early to relax. Accordingly, Kripke has a battle plan: Keep the action moving and the answers coming. Most episodes of Revolution are built around a stand-alone set piece — like a train heist or a siege. That way casual viewers can drop in without feeling, well, lost. And the show already shocked fans by killing off a major character in Charlie’s surrogate-mother figure Maggie (Anna Lise Phillips) in the fourth episode. To keep up the pace, expect Charlie’s brother to get rescued by the end of the year, freeing up the rest of the season to fulfill the promise of the title: chronicling a revolution against Monroe’s powerful militia. Esposito hints, however, that the general might have trouble keeping his ambitious Neville in line. ”Monroe is a little shaky and may not be the man to take us into the future,” he says. ”Neville starts to unravel that for himself.”

There’s also character growth ahead for Charlie, whose wide-eyed earnestness has been a focal point of fan criticism. Kripke defends Spiridakos as a ”wildly watchable and charismatic” actress with a tricky task of playing a naive girl in a harsh land, noting that Luke Skywalker started off whiny too. ”You can’t please everybody,” Spiridakos says. ”Charlie has to start from somewhere. It’s easy to forget this is all new to her.” Expect an extreme attitude makeover to toughen her up. ”She evolves into a badass like Miles,” says Kripke, who then teases: ”But can she hold on to her soul when he lost his?”

Most significantly, Kripke will likely answer the show’s biggest mystery — what caused the Blackout — this season. We know from the pilot that Charlie’s dad had advance warning that the outage was coming and downloaded some crucial technology to one of those iPhone-activating pendants, but that’s about it. ”I feel like the longer you hold on to that question, the more mind-blowingly awesome the answer has to be, and I’m just not that smart,” Kripke says. The Blackout origin story is smart enough to have earned a stamp of approval from a physicist. So expect a reveal that’s vaguely possible — and not, say, a magic glowing island cave.

Our heroes will also encounter drug dealers and a village of lost children, but Revolution will continue to avoid the gritty nihilism of that other apocalyptic road trip, AMC’s The Walking Dead. ”It’s not that the characters can’t be wounded, but it should be fun to watch,” Kripke says. ”It’s a rollicking, red-blooded action show. When writers pitch me the cannibal story every other week, I’m like, ‘But is it swashbuckling?”’ That tonal choice is perhaps Revolution‘s most distinctive contribution to its well-worn genre — has the apocalypse ever looked so sunny and welcoming? Outdoor scenes are deliberately color-saturated during postproduction, making the show’s North Carolina locations look like an ad for some rustic vacation retreat with a strict cell-phone ban. Sure, it’s the end of the world as we know it. But watching Revolution feels just fine.

Meet the Revolutionaries
Danny Matheson
Graham Rogers

The hot-tempered but resourceful teenager is in the custody of the Monroe Militia after having killed the officer who shot his father.

Jason Neville
JD Pardo

Tom’s son took after his old man by becoming a member of the Monroe Militia, but his motives have since gotten muddled. When ordered to track down Miles, he posed as a friendly nomad and joined up with Charlie’s gang — and perhaps has gotten too friendly with her.

Capt. Tom Neville
Giancarlo Esposito

In his former life, the man who captured Danny was a mild-mannered insurance adjuster, but the new Monroe Republic has seen him transform into a high-ranking, ruthless officer of the Militia.

Charlie Matheson
Tracy Spiridakos

Armed with a crossbow, Charlie is leading the quest to recover her brother from the brutal Monroe Militia — the same one that killed her father and imprisoned her mother.

General Monroe
David Lyons

As the founding president and commander-in-chief of his namesake republic, the ex-Marine will go to violently drastic measures to ensure compliance among his subjects, especially the rebels who illegally pledge their allegiance to the American flag. But Monroe’s biggest threat looks to be his former partner in crime Miles.

Miles Matheson
Billy Burke

Charlie’s uncle is more than just a reluctant relative helping out in the search for Danny. He was a Marine sergeant before the Blackout, the powerful cofounder and commander of the Monroe Militia after things got dark, and more recently a whiskey-swilling bartender. It’s still unclear which job he takes most seriously.

Rachel Matheson
Elizabeth Mitchell

She has been missing since the Blackout and is feared dead by her children, but the Matheson mother has actually been living in captivity at the Monroe Republic’s capitol — which, ironically enough, is located in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall.