Revolution debuts tonight on NBC at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Todd VanDerWerff: In and of itself, the idea of all modern technology abruptly failing to work, as it does in the first five minutes of the Revolution pilot, is an almost irresistible premise. Those of us fortunate enough to live in technologically developed countries are so reliant on things like automobiles or computers or power plants to live our lives that we don’t stop to think about it until forced to. Sure, you’re reading this on a computer (or smartphone or tablet) right now, and you’re probably doing so in an office building or home or dormitory that’s comfortable and air-conditioned. You realize all of that stuff right off the bat, but you probably don’t think about how, say, the food that you eat tonight will almost certainly have been shipped in to you via a semi-truck, across a giant highway system. (If you live in another country, it might have literally been shipped in or flown in.) The world balances precariously on the fact that we have access to fossil fuels.
The idea behind Revolution promises something like a series based on the most apocalyptic predictions of oil crash prophet James Howard Kunstler, who spends day after day trying to get Americans—or, at least, the people who stumble upon his website—to consider the fact that humans are using up the aforementioned fossil fuels at an alarming rate, and that once we hit the “peak” of possible production, oil, in particular, will become more and more expensive, and that will drive the price of everything up with it (since the developed world is built on an ocean of relatively cheap oil). There have been resource shortages and scares in the past—like the whale oil fright of the 1800s—but they’d have nothing on a global economy brought to its knees by poor forethought. In the rosiest views of Kunstler, the world goes back to where it was in roughly the late 1800s. In his darkest vision, we’re tossed right back to the Stone Age when nuclear war inevitably breaks out between nations squabbling over the last remaining scraps.
Revolution can’t say this. It can’t base its world on this because that would be an inherently political discussion, and political discussions are anathema to network television. The series wants to consider a world without technology, but it doesn’t really want to do the messy work of showing just how desperately attached to that technology we are. It elides the most interesting part of the narrative—the part where everybody realizes nothing’s turning back on—and skips to a surprisingly idyllic world where the “blackout” is 15 years gone, and everybody has mostly moved into a piece of folk art depicting America’s agrarian past. Yet just looking at the title marks this show as one that wants to be explicitly political. By avoiding the political, Revolution builds a hole at its center it simply can never fill in.
What’s fascinating is how thoroughly the series itself follows this lead. There are interesting characters around the edges of the show—like Giancarlo Esposito’s grimacing militia member Tom Neville, Zak Orth’s former Google employee Aaron, or Billy Burke’s death angel Miles—but the central character, a teenage girl named Charlie (Tracy Spiridakos), is marked less by who she is and more by what things happen to her. She was a little kid when the blackout happened, so she has a certain undefinable nostalgia for what was. She loses both her parents, so she’s an orphan. She’s very close to her brother, so he’s taken from her. Neither the creator of the series—Supernatural’s Eric Kripke, who wrote the pilot—nor Spiridakos herself bother to make Charlie anything more than a cipher. The same goes for the other teenagers in the cast, who are all remarkably dull. This isn’t the first genre series to be felled by boring teenagers, but it is the first to put them in the lead roles for no particular reason.
There is, of course, a quest. After Charlie’s father dies, she sends him to find his brother, Miles, who lives in Chicago and might be able to help the kids turn the power back on. There are betrayals and reversals and swordfights, and only the swordfight (which is impressively choreographed and shot by pilot director Jon Favreau) lands a punch. The end of the pilot sets up the usual round of mysteries—at least one of which most viewers will guess simply from thinking about the premise of the show and wondering what the most “shocking” image to end the episode on might be—and some of these carry a certain amount of intrigue (particularly the identity of certain individuals within Neville’s militia), but even more are undercut by simply knowing how television works, or by seeing that, hey, this series probably won’t relegate a highly recognizable actor from a previous series that was also produced by J.J. Abrams to the flashbacks.
All of that said, there are glimmers of hope here. Esposito is always fun, and both Burke and Orth have their moments. Spiridakos isn’t very good, but she’s at least winning, and series produced by Abrams have figured out how to write to seemingly dull female leads before. (See also: Fringe.) Every time the camera cuts to some famous landmark covered in plants, it makes for a beautiful image, and an early shot of city highways under water is particularly well done. The series should also gain something from having Kripke at the helm. Supernatural took a while to find its feet, but it very quickly became a fun, meat and potatoes kind of horror show, with a surprisingly intriguing mythology that the show ripped through at a fantastic pace. If anyone is going to get past the boring questions raised in the pilot by the end of October, it’s Kripke.
The problem, then, is the way the series races from anything controversial at any point. And lest this come off as the screed of a liberal hoping for a series that would better showcase the lack of sustainability in our current situation, that applies to the show’s moments featuring more conservative positions as well. Because the series is meant to have rough parallels to the American Revolution, the people of the little farming community where Charlie grew up are not allowed to have their own firearms (though, of course, a few do). Instead of turning this into an intriguing commentary on the need to bear arms to protect a truly free society, however, the pilot skews away from anything that might get it lauded by Sean Hannity or Mike Huckabee as quickly as possible. The fact that these people can’t have firearms is just another plot point, just another example of the surprisingly shallow “tyranny” they live under. (The same happens with the idea of Neville’s militia over-taxing the little community’s residents.)
There’s, of course, good reason for this. Thinking through the logical ends of political arguments—even ones where the show’s setting itself is skewed to bolster a particular point of view—is often terrifying and off-putting. The idea of a world where freedoms spelled out in the Bill of Rights are taken from people or where the local government can take everything you own if they want is just as scary as a world where our need to consume and keep consuming sends us backward, through 200 years of technological development, until we’re once again reliant on steam power to get anything done. Never mind that none of these scenarios is terribly likely. The reason for an apocalyptic tale is usually to say, “Hey, if you don’t shape up, you’re going to suffer the consequences,” even if those consequences are exaggerated to ridiculous extremes (as both Kunstler and the National Rifle Association do). The idea is to provoke discussion, to make readers or viewers think about over-reliance on nuclear deterrence strategies, or a political party’s platform when it comes to women’s issues, or the fact that you’d really better turn to Jesus.
But network television is usually against discussion. Revolution can’t truly make us think about what might make the power go out all at once, so it comes up with a bullshit workaround that is at once scientifically implausible and ridiculous within the fiction of the show. And that leads to a bland mythology and characters who don’t even rise to the level of archetypes. Revolution is designed not to consider consequences or the darkness of any of the dystopias it posits. It’s designed to keep us moving along to the next checkpoint, to make us feel brief excitement or brief sadness that’s quickly washed away. It’s designed, as much as anything, to be instantly disposable, just like every other piece of a culture perpetually poised on the brink of losing everything.
Les Chappell: Putting it metaphorically, Revolution’s first outing feels like a role-playing game where the campaign world is full of potential but the game master and half his or her players need to throw out their notes and start over. The idea of our interconnected world simply shutting down one night is terrifying in its own right, and it makes for an interesting hypothetical to see what evolve after 15 years of darkness. And in the execution, Kripke, Abrams, and Favreau have structured a setting that makes sense: an agrarian society built on the overgrown ruins of the old world, a blend of people who grew up without technology and those who remember its comforts.
Unfortunately, the one thing that isn’t accomplished in the early going is the telling of a compelling story. The search for Charlie’s brother is the sort of moving objective storytelling that several shows have used (Falling Skies being an example in its early episodes) and more often than not those episodes feel like a filler technique, especially in circumstances like these where the character who needs rescuing is as annoying as this one. And yes, a lot of this world’s population would ask the question of what caused the blackout, but turning the search for that answer into a season-long narrative (as it appears to be) means the show becomes less about its setting and more about its mythology—a tactic that’s doomed many of the post-Lost high-concept shows.
Not that I think Revolution is doomed in the early goings, as there’s still a lot of potential on display even without the ethical discussions. Esposito is always reliable as a quietly menacing villain, and Burke’s getting a lot of early mileage from playing a human weapon (a term I’m reclaiming from CBS’s long-forgotten CHAOS). And while interest in the starting trio is low at the start, there’s potential there, particularly in Orth’s former Google executive wistfully looking back on his old life. There’s still plenty of room to steer out of the skid—the question is, of course, is if Kripke and company even see the skid coming.