A new 'Revolution' from sci-fi mogul J.J. Abrams
NEW YORK (AP) — "There is an inherent evil to the wondrous technology that we embrace blindly," says J.J. Abrams.
It's a loaded observation that seems simultaneously quizzical, thrilled and circumspect. And it hints at the world view of Abrams, the alliteratively initialed writer-director-producer whose latest series, "Revolution," airs Mondays at 10 p.m. EDT on NBC.
Consider Abrams' anecdote about a fax machine that demanded his attention when it went on the blink.
"For several minutes I was a slave to the machine," he says, recalling how it displayed step-by-step directions for fixing it. "If an alien had come down and peeked in the window, it would have concluded, 'Oh, this is a society in which little devices tell those bipedal creatures what to do.'"
The notion amuses him as much as gives him pause.
"We are in that place right now," he declares. "We are as much in response to what this thing is telling us to do as it is to us. This is a balancing act, and I'm not sure which side has more weight."
Such a tale helps explain why his new drama, "Revolution," spoke to him as a series idea.
It was created by Eric Kripke ("Supernatural"). But it bears the imprint of Abrams, one of filmdom's most inventive and recognized names, and his company, tellingly dubbed Bad Robot Productions.
"Revolution" tells of a world 15 years after the world inexplicably suffers a power outage. Every electronic gadget, light source, communications means and conveyance is the victim of a seemingly permanent blackout.
The upshot? For Abrams, it's "an epic romantic family quest."
That is, a rogue band of survivors is pitted against an oppressive militia that treats remaining loyalists to the United States as insurgents to be crushed. Meanwhile, modernity is in ruins and overrun by greenery as an agrarian lifestyle reasserts itself. Stars include Tracy Spiridakos, Billy Burke, Zak Orth, Elizabeth Mitchell and Giancarlo Esposito.
What intrigued Abrams wasn't so much the why of the power going out — though he promises the whys will be explained in due time — but rather the saga that results from its absence. Here is a raging new twist on the Swiss Family Robinson, people challenged by the dicey wish fulfillment of a world no longer in thrall to technology.
"When the power goes out, the structure of society would shift enormously," Abrams reasons. "The people who are in control are more likely to fall by the wayside and not know how to handle anything. The have-nots will know how to live in that world and will become the most powerful."
Meeting a reporter in the sort of office high-rise that's utterly dependent on power (down to the restrooms? electric towel dispensers), Jeffrey Jacob Abrams, 46, is bespectacled and boyish, an affable thinker excited by ideas and conversation.
What seems to engage him most isn't whys but what-ifs, particularly when his characters face the encroachment of technology.
"I think the connection between the flesh and the machine is fascinating and relevant," he says. "I don't know what's more relevant than that today. It's a big part of 'Revolution,' as well as 'Fringe' and 'Person of Interest.'"
Abrams' CBS high-tech drama "Person of Interest," now starting its second season, harnesses state-of-the-art surveillance gadgetry in New York City and then applies pattern recognition to identify people who will soon be involved in violent crimes — and hopefully prevent them.
His Fox sci-fi series "Fringe," beginning its fifth and final season, is a mind-expanding exploration of "fringe" science, parallel universes and alternate timelines.
Both those shows are steeped in the technology they investigate. But "Revolution" (which in its first three airings has averaged 9.8 million viewers and scored a full-season order from NBC) is giving Abrams a chance to address his favorite issues while catching his breath in its more primitive setting.
"Today," he says, "information is instantaneous. People know too much too soon and the whole world witnesses every moment. The more this happens, the harder it is to tell stories. It really undermines the possibility of something being curated, of someone with taste and intellect being able to help you determine a point of view.
"What technology allows is a terrifying mess and an amazing miracle of 1s and 0s that let us create and communicate and reach the world," he says, again savoring a sage ambivalence. "But it's not that I ever approach any story thinking: What is the moral? Instead, I think: Who's the character in this story I want to care about?"
Of course, Abrams' depth of involvement in the shows that bear his name varies.
On "Revolution," as with "Person of Interest," he explains, "I'm reading and watching and giving my opinion. But I'm not writing the show. I didn't create it and I'm not running it."
He co-created "Fringe," then brought in people to run it. Two of his past series, the coming-of-age drama "Felicity" and spy thriller "Alias," he created and ran. But he created "Lost," worked on it for a while, then handed it off to others.
He directed the upcoming film "Star Trek Into Darkness." He wrote and directed the recent "Super 8," his semi-autobiographical sci-fi romp about a teenager in 1979 making a home movie with his friends.
And there are always more projects in the offing (Abrams mentions several in passing), which prompts the question: How much is too much?
The question makes him smile. He invokes an age-old expression about overindulgence — one's eyes being bigger than one's stomach — when he replies, "I have big eyes in terms of working with great people and projects. But I'm very lucky to have the chance."
Meanwhile, his family keeps him grounded.
"I'm married to the love of my life" — public relations exec Katie McGrath, his wife of 16 years — "and I have three kids who are the result of that love."
Those are the kids heard scolding "Bad robot!" on the animated credit for his company, whose name came from a children's book he once planned to write.
"The thing that keeps my head from exploding," he says, "is knowing that I have a family that is the real point of everything, and it keeps me from getting sucked into the vortex of projects and madness. I'm the guy who doesn't work on weekends. Without my family, I would be at the office all the time.
"I say 'no' to almost everything," he insists. "But when there's something that makes me go 'Ooooh, I want to see that,' I just know it's something worth finding time to work on."
Then Abrams takes another whack at flesh and machines.
Bad Robot strikes again.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier
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