A once-great empire reduced to a state of dissolution and anarchy. Bastions of strength thought to be impregnable have been wiped away, and what remains in its place isn’t even fit for the vultures to pick over. There’s barely a sign of hope that the world will be brought back to the glory once enjoyed, as the ground has been scorched and the reserves have been depleted. Those once considered to be saviors have become little more than fugitives and refugees, scattered in remote corners where the best they can hope for is to not be noticed by larger predators.
But enough about the state of NBC; let’s talk about one of the Peacock’s more notable scheduling moves for the 2013-2014 season. After a disappointing few years where nothing has been able to find traction in the 8 p.m. Wednesday timeslot—the litany of failure includes Knight Rider, Mercy, Minute To Win It, Undercovers, Up All Night, Free Agents, Whitney, Are You There, Chelsea, Animal Practice and Guys With Kids—the network is now trying to shore it up by plugging in swashbuckling sword fights and dicey nanomachine science. Revolution is ceding its Monday post-Voice timeslot to The Blacklist and is now heading to a spot not quite as toxic as Thursdays at 10 p.m., but certainly not the fate expected for a show considered at one point to be the breakout hit of last season.
Some might say this was a fate ill-deserved for Revolution, but those people likely weren’t ones watching it regularly. Revolution’s fall from grace came about largely from its fall from quality, as what was once a promising show buried itself in tedious plotting, bad characters, and a total disconnect from what had been the interesting elements of the premise. Need I remind you, this was a story that began life talking about the scarcity of bullets and treating steam power as a marvel, and ended with a gauss weapon shootout in a top-secret government bunker to reach the controls for nuclear missiles. Toward the end, I had been reduced to a thinly veiled contempt for the whole enterprise, so frustrated at the storytelling that I was actively encouraging the writers to burn the entire thing to the ground.
Wonder of wonders, it seems like Eric Kripke and company were listening to me, because the second season premiere “Born In The USA” does just that. In the months between seasons, which also added Kripke’s fellow Supernatural alum Ben Edlund and Farscape creator Rockne O’Bannon to the writing staff, Revolution has thrown the majority of its status quo against the wall and is trying to see if it can build something new and interesting with the pieces. And at least in its first effort, it seems like the show may have found something salvageable. I’m not going to swear it has turned a corner completely—I had similar hopes after the midseason premiere and was proved horribly wrong—but the seismic shifts in this instance are so considerable it’s not out of the realm of possibility to call it a fresh start.
The first promising sign of “Born In The USA” is that it doesn’t attempt to back out of the cliffhanger ending of “The Dark Tower.” Randall’s plot to throw the Monroe Republic and the Georgia Federation into chaos has succeeded despite the best efforts of Miles and company, and Philadelphia and Atlanta have been reduced to nuclear graveyards. The action picks up six months later, with main characters scattered across a once-more powerless America. Miles, Rachel, and Aaron have made their way into the Republic of Texas, where they’ve found shelter in the settlement of Willoughby with Rachel’s father, Gene (Stephen Collins, in his second post-apocalyptic appearance this year after playing the president in Falling Skies’ third season). Charlie’s broken with the family and is on a solitary journey through the Plains Nation, where she encounters an anonymous Monroe making a living off bare-knuckle brawls. Neville and Jason have ventured back to Georgia and are on a desperate quest to find Julia, scouring through the nearly endless sea of tents at the refugee camps.
With the destruction of the first season’s two major urban centers and the removal of the power—Aaron implies whatever took place in the Tower shut everything off for good this time—Revolution feels like the show it was supposed to be for the first time in a long while. Production moved to from North Carolina to Austin, Texas between seasons, and the cinematography department is taking advantage of this change to establish a new aesthetic. New settings, from the walled encampment of Willoughby to the tent city of New Vegas (or as I like to call it, New Vegas no-not-that-one), have a lived-in feeling that speaks of a world that’s had to adjust to not having power. There’s a pioneer attitude of survival that permeates events, an atmosphere that the Magical Pendants and nanomachines sabotaged last season and which the show is smartly returning to.
The new status quo also has the positive effect of throwing the majority of the cast members outside of their comfort zones: Miles is falling back into bad habits with bloodied hands and burning sheds, Rachel’s recovering from guilt-induced catatonia, and Neville’s so despondent over the loss of his beloved wife he considers eating his Desert Eagle. Too often in season one, characters were in the position of making bad decisions because they served the plot, and now they’re facing up to the consequences of those choices, which is smart for the big picture of the narrative. And in some cases, it’s served to take the burden off the cast’s weak links, as both Charlie and Monroe are so shaken by their events they’re offering minimal emotions and speech as they try to keep moving forward.
With a new season also comes new adversaries, and “Born In The USA” rolls out two new groups to cause trouble. When Miles tries to leave Willoughby at Gene’s request he comes across a raiding party from the Plains Nation, a tribal-style group identified as a “war clan.” Introducing these Mad Max-style enemies means Revolution can return to the more primal depiction of a post-power world and churn up a sea of faceless adversaries for our heroes to take action against. It allows Billy Burke to operate in both of his best aspects, authoritative as he lectures the sheriff on how to shore up the town’s defenses and badass as he returns to the show’s swashbuckling roots by fighting off the war clan’s advance scouts. (Though it’s not enough for Miles to avoid being taken prisoner by the clan, thankfully proving that his human weapon qualities have their limits.)
There’s another enemy introduced in the other sphere of the narrative, and the jury’s still out on its efficacy, given it’s tied with a season finale twist that was maddening at the time. The last-minute reveal of “The Dark Tower," which was that Randall was acting on behalf of a group purporting to be the United States government, comes up as a ship sails into the Savannah refugee camp, with representatives of the group offering aid and promises of reuniting the shattered world: “We want this country to be great again.” But as was established in the first season, Neville’s chief skill is his finely tuned bullshit detector, and he can connect the dots easily enough to see that these “Patriots” are snake oil salesmen who stood to gain from Randall firing the missiles, and thus are indirectly responsible for murdering his wife. We know that Giancarlo Esposito taking revenge is a sight to behold when done right, and placing him up against this new threat is a sign that I’ll be paying attention despite structural misgivings on the threat itself.
And he’s not the only one out for blood. Once Charlie learns that Monroe’s been sighted at New Vegas no-not-that-one, she heads straight there, bribing a bookie to get access to him and preparing to execute him for the damage done to her family. The closest Revolution got to using Charlie well last season was when it stripped out her emotional responses and had her channel her uncle’s bloodier instincts, and that’s a trend continuing here—she doesn’t hesitate when she gets Monroe in her sights, and he’s only spared by a pair of men who take him captive. Pairing Tracy Spiridakos and David Lyons doesn’t seem like the smartest choice, given they were the weakest performers in the entire cast, though hopefully the level of hostility between their characters will overcome those deficits.
Finally, there’s Revolution’s taste for batshit science. Toying with the operating system of the nanomachines didn’t set the world on fire as Grace threatened last season, but it’s manifesting itself in other odd ways, such as swarms of fireflies flaring up with remarkable brightness and other insects behaving out of sorts. I was one of the harshest critics of the nanomachine twist to the blackout—at the time I referred to it as the technobabble equivalent of “a wizard did it”—yet I find this aspect of the show interesting. When the nanomachines are used as a catch-all explanation, it comes across as lazy storytelling. When they’re used as an inexplicable element, it gives Revolution a level of unpredictability that makes things interesting. And the unpredictability comes up before the hour’s over: Aaron takes a seemingly fatal wound to the chest when the war clan attacks, and just when I was prepared to bid farewell to another character who had apparently outstayed his welcome, there’s a flash of light, a flickering swarm, and his eyes snap open in dramatic fashion. I suspect the creative team will not go far enough to make him a nanomachine-powered zombie, but I’m intrigued at how it will explain this.
Prior to Charlie’s departure, Miles—always willing to voice his annoyance with a situation in a way that closely resembles my own—offers her a few characteristically honest words of wisdom: “Try and keep your stupid to a minimum.” And as Revolution tries to find itself in a new timeslot with a new creative team, I can only hope that’s advice everyone takes to heart. The cast and crew have an opportunity to make a new show, and with a timeslot free of expectations, they may have the creative freedom to do just that.
- Welcome back to TV Club’s Revolution coverage! I’m back along with it. I know I said at the season finale that I was done for good, but it seems that my perverse curiosity at where it’s going is enough to reel me back in for at least a few episodes.
- I love the fact that the season one recap trailer doesn’t feature Danny once despite his being the narrative spine of half the season, nor is he mentioned at any point this episode by any of the characters. Poor, pathetic, useless Danny. Even your grandfather can’t work up the interest to ask what happened to you.
- Whatever problems Revolution had last season, you could always count on it to cast guest actors who are worth watching, and the trend continues. In addition to Stephen Collins, Aaron’s new girlfriend is played by Jessica Collins (Maggie from Rubicon), and the leader of the war clan is played by Matt Ross (Alby Grant from Big Love, Dr. Montgomery from American Horror Story).
- Eric Kripke’s love of music shines through in this episode, with musicians offering up acoustic covers of “Crazy Train” and “Tom Sawyer.” The bartender Charlie seduces also talks about how the jukebox roared to life with “Ramble On,” and it was “like playing the voice of God.”
- Speaking of, we learn that the four minutes where the power went on have taken on a mythic resonance amongst those who witnessed it and are commonly known as the Surge. (All together now, children of the 90s: SURGE!!!)
- Miles is evidently once again going by his Stu Redman alias from “No Quarter” in Willoughby. Smart move to hide his identity, even though his human weapon capabilities continue to strain the credulity of anyone who witnesses him in action.
- This week in Magical Pendant news: One of the pendants has survived the fracas of last season, and even though the power is apparently gone for good according to Aaron he’s still keeping it as a talisman. Maybe the pendant is the source of his near-resurrection as opposed to magical fireflies?
- Favorite moment of the whole premiere: the New Vegas no-not-that-one barker who claims “We have the world-famous David Schwimmer performing in our tent, the last surviving Friend! All your favorite episodes!”