Thursday, September 6, 2012

NBC's "Revolution"

I'm a sucker for post apocalyptic TV series. I loved JMS's Jeremiah when I was younger, and I very much liked CBS' Jericho despite its flaws. S.M. Stirling's Dies the Fire series also ranges rather high on my 'have to finish reading it' list. So you can probably imagine my delight when I came across NBC's new project called Revolution. Here's what its all about:
Revolution takes place in a post-apocalyptic future. Fifteen years earlier, an unknown phenomenon permanently disabled all advanced technology on the planet, ranging from computers and electronics to car engines, jet engines, and batteries. People were forced to adapt to a world without technology, and due to the collapse of public order, many areas are ruled by warlords and militias. The series focuses on the Matheson family, who possess an item that is the key to not only finding out what happened fifteen years ago, but also a possible way to reverse its effects.
Is it any good? Well, they pre-aired the show's pilot this week and I was able to watch it. And what can I say? I'm a jaded bastard. You see the problem is, if you like post-apocalyptic fiction and consume your fair share of the genre you not only become somewhat genre-savvy but also become very observant regarding the small things that can make or break a setting. And Revolution? Well, let me just say that it's not off to a good start in that regard.

This is a potpourri of points and opinions which either myself or some other trustworthy individuals posted on two web forums which I condensed into this semi-coherent rant. On second thought, semi-coherent is probably a very polite way to describe these unrelated rambling. Structured paragraphs? Pah, who needs those...!

The Good

Production values are really high for a TV series. That's about it, sorry. The world looks great, if a wee bit too overgrown, and you get the idea that with Kripke and Favreau you've got two guys orchestrating this who have a good eye for the visual side of things. They don't pull any punches when it comes to showing what little is left of what used to be Illinois even though I think they should've gone for more signs of destructions within the cities and less 'the jungle conquered it all back'. Even rural roads won't be fully overgrown after fifteen years of barely any use, and large cities bristling concrete and steel are a whole other league to begin with.

The musical score also helps to underline the feeling of mystery of exploring a world we know and yet no longer know at the same time.

The Not So Good
I wish I could linger longer on some good aspects of the show but, well, there really aren't too many of them so far. What Revolution does wrong with its first episode is that it attempts to force 2-3 episodes worth of content into a 43-minute running time.

What, in a more confident show, would have been the first multi-episode story arc (Charlie's search for her Uncle Miles), is instead forced into severely limited space first with the opening prologue establishing the "blackout" that shuts down all technology, the establishment of the basics of the post-apocalyptic setting 15 years later, the introduction of characters, the establishment of relationships and dynamics among the main cast, the introduction of even more characters and new locations as the show rapidly expands, a major action scene with swords and muskets, hints to the broader mystery and major conflict that will likely dominate the rest of the season, etc. There's so much jockeying for attention from the start with this show that none of it is effective, none of it is involving, none of it actually works.

What feels like it could have been a good climax to a first episode, the abduction of Charlie's brother and the death of her father which serve as her "call to adventure," instead happens after only fifteen minutes.

Which brings us to a central weakness of the show so far. Yes, it's a bit unfair to call it that way after only forty-five minutes, but it needs to be said since it concerns the centerpieces of Revolution. With a few exceptions the characters are mediocre at best, obnoxious at worst. Billy Burke is a bad-ass. Giancarlo Esposito seems like a reasonable guy.

Charly (let's call her Not-Katniss), the female main protagonist, is a clich̩ rebellious teenager more suited for a contemporary series than Revolution, too curious for her Рand her astmathic brother's good Рdespite having grown up in the very post-apocalyptica that caused her mother's death through the same lack of caution. And the first thing she does after leaving to get her stupid brother back is chat up the first random good looking guy (Not-Jacob) she comes across... because, caution, you know. Of course he's a militia plant who rats them out.

Her brother Danny is barely any better. In fact, given that his stupidity causes the death of their father I don't see how this is a character I could relate to.

The point is this: these people have grown up in what should have been hell on Earth. They should be intimately accustomed to this new world's dangers and to its do's and don't's. That especially the teenagers the most ingrained with this knowledge act the most recklessly is quite the turn off. If a platoon of trained and somewhat armed (more to that later) militiamen rides into your village the smart thing isn't to oppose them with a single crossbow and a fat guy with a gun.

Aaron (fat neighbor dude) is the comic relief, who of course goes on the journey to get their brother back unarmed. As does the medicine lady.

That's a problem but doesn't completely undermine my suspension of disbelief. What follows, however, does.

Everything and everybody is way too clean. In fact they look as if they had just walked out of an shampoo commercial rather than spending 15 years without electricity, new clothes, healthy food or running water, let alone haircare products and cosmetics. Clothes barely look worn. People are extremely healthy, given the ordeals they must've gone through: they're muscular, not set on by ilnesses, some even carry quite impressive girths around with them. Ironically it's the extras who probably are clothed the most reasonably.

What makes this allthemore problematic from a perspective of in-universe plausibility is that especially our "starting group", the community our story begins in, are former suburbanites with a supposed white collar background. There are no known farming backgrounds, there's no prior knowledge regarding raising cattle, cultivating crops (without pesticides and fertilizer!) and there's no knowledge in construction.

The militia itself and the "other republics" are just as baffling. The latters because we know nothing of them except for their supposed existence. The militia, on the other hand, is a crowd worse equipped than the Union Army of 1861. If this really was a Dies the Fire scenario (and they've just put enough space between themselves and S.M. Stirling to avoid a law suit) I could somewhat understand this (well, after 15 years that'd stretch things...). What we have to ask ourselves is how a supposedly potent military force like the Monroe Militia is primarily armed with melee weapons, flintlocks and crossbows. This is not a small question. We're talking about a US population reduced from above 300 million to maybe a tenth of that, and an amount of firearms in public and private ownership probably equalling the pre-collapse population numbers. Add to this literally billions of rounds of ammonution and scores of protective gear in circulation with the armed forces, militias and law enforcement and it makes it hard to believe that the single most powerful military force in the Chicago area doesn't use Kevlar, helmets or modern firearms whatsoever.

One thing that bothered me is also this, because it directly plays into the complete lack of modern equipment bit: Esposito's character mentions that owning a firearm is an offensive punishable by death. Now, leaving aside the obvious problems of trying to disarm a post-apocalyptic, entrenched society, shouldn't this mean that the ones doing the confiscating - the Militia - ought to be swimming in gear and guns? I don't expect them to all wear pristine M4s, but given the amount of guns compared to the relative scarcity of people they should at least all be equipped with modern firearms and a modicum of actual (para)-military gear. A bit like Daniel's army in Jeremiah, for example.

This is all even more absurd considering that the guy behind the Monroe Militia isn't some kind of doofus but a former NCO with - at least the in-episode dialogue makes it sound like that - some special forces background. Why would he, of all people, ditch the advantge that modern gear, guns and armor have to offer?

You might say they want drama between attractive people. Not rugged survivors in tattered clothes, armored fighting men and return to sheer medieval brutality. My answer to this is: Then do a different premise. If you're going to ignore a bunch of the implications, the show has no depth and looks like cheese despite costing much more than a "modern" show to produce. You give people swords, give them armor. Apart from making you fight a lot better, it's very advisable in a world where medical care & availability will be poor.

I know that this is the first episode and everything, but has there been any mention about steam engines or diesel engines? Neither one of those engines utilize electricity to function, the technology is over a century old and every first year university engineering student can probably MacGuyver something together in just a few weeks/months time, so after 15 years I would imagine that there should be hundreds (if not thousands) of such engines in existence across the country.

In fact: think about the Coolness/Geek Factor if the Militia rolled into the village with a steam engined powered tank. Now wouldn't that had showed the viewer what badasses they were... But instead we get dudes with machetes and crossbows.

That's something I really don't get. There's basically nobody who can make a good sword these days, especially in America. Or even an adequate one. There's at least thousands of people out there who can make a decent enough gun, and millions who can reload ammunition. Machine tools don't *really* need electricity, in fact, much of the gun "cottage industry" relies on venerable old machines dating back to WW2, which are powered by belts that run up to the ceiling. They'll run on anything that can spin the pulleys. Water wheels, steam or diesel engines, bunch of dudes turning a capstan, etc.

That, and very few people know how to fight with a sword these days. Even fewer than did so in the past, naturally.

And the fact that at some point he's going to have a big mano-a-mano fight with Billy Burke at some point is so phoned in its not even funny.

Some things just don't make any sense, like the water levels having risen by what looks five meters or more in Chicago. Why?

And one more thing: why didn't Esposito's guys tear that black lady's house apart? Why was she let go scot-free for harboring a fugitive (Charly's brother)?

Sorry, the more I think about it the less the story and its characters make sense so far. I didn't want to go at this series all negative, but aside from its optics it has pretty little going for it right now. But I'll keep watching it. Maybe it'll get better. The series does have potential. But from here on it's treading a thin line. I just hope they won't waste it.


  1. This seems like it will be an amazing show! I haven’t watched the premiere yet, but a coworker at Dish and I are planning on watching it on premiere night. It will get recorded with the PrimeTime Anytime feature on my Hopper, so I won’t have to worry about picking it over my other shows that get recorded on the same night. This should be an incredibly exciting show, as long as it stays as good as it looks!

  2. I assume that the ferris wheel in the promo poster is intended to evoke the famous one at Chernobyl. I rather like that at least. It's a clever little nod.

    1. True enough. Point is, I'll stick with the series just to find out if it's getting more intersting or if they shot their powder already.

  3. There are a lot of issues that you point out here that can actually be explained fairly well. You make a lot of assumptions about the characters and the universe that aren't really based in the amount of information we got in just the Pilot episode.

    Just because someone lived in suburbia at one point doesn't mean they didn't grow up on a farm, or had their own vegetable or herb garden pre-blackout. In addition, even if someone didn't have any knowledge of homeopathic remedies that even the most basic and easily cultivated herbs, this knowledge is readily available in many books (I use these very rarely, but we do have a copy of "The Complete Book of Herbs" that contains not only growing and preparing herbs, but medicinal uses such as treatment of bruises, sprains, minor burns, cuts and abrasions, boils and sores, cold/flu, among others. Even basic things we take every day, like aspirin, have the same active pain reliever ingredient as can be found in willow bark. Yes, chronic illnesses such as cancer are probably not going to have a particularly good outcome, but, I'm of the opinion that there might be a correlation between modern industrial life and some (emphasis on SOME) cases of illness.

    As for the appearance of the main group of survivors we encountered in the Pilot, I know from experience of growing up and living in Suburbia that I have more clothes than I could possibly wear enough to be worn out, even after 15 years. And even soap (and surprisingly, more cosmetic products like hair spray, gel, skin masks, even hair lightening with lemon juice) isn't that hard to make).

    It's fairly likely someone in most villages had some clothes-making/reconstructing ability. Basic hand-sewing skills (I have them, even without ever having taken a class or having any real instruction) can also be utilized when it comes to other types of stitching (like that of suturing human wounds - we saw this as Maggie, blonde medicine lady) stitched Miles' wound. And she wasn't entirely unarmed, as you say - that poisoned whiskey trick was sneaky. Just because you don't carry a sword or a gun doesn't make you any less lethal.

  4. I don't know really anything about firearm construction, but my guess would be that most modern ammunition, if not firearm, production is not done without the use of electricity. I disagree that good swords are scarce even now, and even I have a basic understanding of what it might take to make a sword (melt strong metal together, hammer, sharpen), while I would have no clue how to go about constructing a gun. Plus, if you have any experience playing first-person shooter video games, you know a little of the anxiety of ammo usage. If you are relying solely on a gun for a weapon, you are going to be so screwed when you run out of bullets. It's much more logical to learn to use a bow & arrow or sword (and to train your children with those weapons) than a gun. And modern kevlar doesn't protect much against arrows or swords, iirc, plus that or any other armor is going to be really heavy and significantly impair your maneuverability (think ninja). Speed and agility are going to be far more useful in a world where you are most likely to be dodging foes not armed with bullets, and even those who are). Plus a sword makes for a WAY COOLER fight scene, at least IMO. That was the most fun part of the episode.

    My guess is that they are aiming for a more western aesthetic (think Firefly - look at the Chicago scenes; walking through the market and into the tavern I got some strong Deadwood vibes, with the music and the lanterns and the warm lighting) than a steampunk one with steam-powered things, but again, remember this is only the Pilot. We got multiple references to the fact that there are different "republics" (we could say "districts") but we haven't seen any of them. There has to be a reason that one republic hasn't taken control of all the rest. Maybe they do have steam power something-or-other in areas that are particularly coal-rich, like Kentucky/West Virginia/etc. Hopefully with more episode and more universe expansion we;ll get more of that kind of information.

  5. Chicago rising waters: do you have any idea how much humans have fucked with the natural watersheds, keeping them at bay (pun unintended) with technological means? Without that, I'm not surprised the landscape of major cities has been drastically altered.

    As for the pacing, I say THANK GOD they didn't stretch the Pilot's happenings into more episodes, especially because through the multitude of promo and introduction videos, they had pretty much shown the whole Pilot already (except for the Monroe reveal, which I thought was pretty interesting). Then we'd be looking at another Walking Dead or Falling Skies scenario, of one filler episode after another, with real events only happen at season and mid-season finales.

    I'm looking forward to seeing not only the week-to-week conflicts the groups encounters, but also Danny's journey (I'm surprised they had him be so active and was actually able to escape, however briefly. Maybe once he gets to Monroe he might end up getting some of that "re-education" and turning pro-Militia?). Uncle Miles could also have an interesting future (if the show lasts that long) - if his Marine BFF became a republic leader, who's to say that Miles won't end up in a similar role, especially if the public views him as a "bringer of light"?

    Plus they were able to set up some clues to tease the audience about the technology, those fancy usb necklace thingys (I want one!) and about this possible rebel alliance. I wonder if Grace (the black lady who helped out Danny) had known who he was and whose son he was, she would have covered the tracks and maybe stashed him in her Anne Frank computer attic.

    The weakest part of the Pilot for me was the character of Charlie. She was just so damn whiny! With Maggie and the "you're not my real mom! you can't tell me what to do!" to "but FAMILY!" Thank god Uncle Miles told her to knock that shit off. She actually reminded me of the first song from Beauty and the Best, "Belle" ("little town, it's a quiet village, every day like the one before") except that Belle wasn't an annoying twat and she had a pair. I hope she gets better.

    Anyway, long response is long, but you raised a lot of points I wanted to address. I think you're expecting more from a Pilot than is realistically possible. I'll be posting my recap next Tuesday after the premiere airs on TV.

  6. My problem with the show was the relationships, you can tell just from that pilot episode what is going to happen. At least for Katniss and Jacob, he turns her in but saves her in the end because he's probably fallen in love with her.
    I also thought that the world looked a bit more run down than 15 years could do, I can see the water in Chicago but the pillars fallen in the hotel? Really?
    Out of the big Lost replacement shows that came out this pilot season I preferred Last Resort, that was a show that I can see pulling me in.