Guest post by Sebastian Breit.
Full disclosure: 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. Ignoring the politics of the people behind it I found William R. Forstchen's One Second After a quite compelling read. 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 stumbled across NBC's new project called Revolution earlier this year. The two men behind the project also made me prick up my ears. Erik Kripke of Supernatrural fame and Jon Favreau, the man behind the Iron Man movies are two titans of recent scifi and fantasy entertainment. Ever since the announcement that it had been picked up in spring I was excited about it, even though the promo videos offered reason for concern. Here's what its all about:
Revolution takes place in a post-apocalyptic future. Fifteen years earlier, an unknown phenomenon permanently disabled all electricity 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 a few weeks 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, in my opinion it's not off to a good start in that regard.
But lets do this point by point.
That's a problem, but it's basically nitpicking and doesn't substantially undermine my suspension of disbelief. If overgrowth is the way they've chosen to show the abandonment of the larger cities that's something I can live with. What follows, however, does undermine my suspension of disbelief.
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 fifteen years without electricity, new clothes, healthy food or running water, let alone an abundance of 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 illnesses, some even carry quite impressive girths around with them. Ironically it's the extras visible in the background who probably are clothed the most reasonably.
Yes, I know the common rebuttal here would be “but surely there's an overabundance of clothes in all those shops and malls etc.”. No, I'm sorry, that point doesn't fly. Even if we assume that most malls etc weren't looted and partially destroyed once society turned into the great cannibal battle royale it probably would turn into you get clothes that have been exposed to the elements for one and a half decades in environments without AC or heating. 99% of what you had there would have rotted and be totally unusable by now.
What makes this all the more 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. Aaron, the slightly overweight neighbor, was a former multi-millionaire working for Google. 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 that we are shown. Nothing against accountants and Poli Sci majors, but how likely are they to survive as farmers lacking equipment, useful soil and, most importantly, available seeds?!
As an addendum to this, I know 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 of such engines in existence across the country driving local commerce.
A propos local commerce. Chicago with its position at the Great Lakes and opposite of Canada should be a trade hub crawling with people and ships and should have its own ruler and authorities. The way it was presented in it's basically a lawless pit where everybody does what he wants. Because we know that the Monroe Militia – the bad guys – aren't in control of it since it took them hours to get a squad there. That's not how power dynamics work. It would have been plausible in the first few years after the collapse, but fifteen years later? There should be someone in charge, a General, a Duke, or something. Secondly, trade should exist again. If you can make a profit of something by getting goods moved around people will do that. If the potential profit is high enough they'll equip armed trade caravans to do so. This isn't some arcane principle. Greed is a basic part if human nature. Especially along the Great Lakes you would probably have something like the Hansa develop after fifteen years.
The musical score really is something that's just good. It's not corny, it's not bombastic, and it helps to underline the feeling of mystery of exploring a world we know and yet no longer know at the same time. Those who wrote and performed it did a good job.
What, in a more confident show, would have been the first multi-episode story arc - Charly's search for her Uncle Miles - or at least a ninety minute opener is instead forced into a 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 fifteen 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 Charly's (let's call her Not-Katniss from here on) brother and the death of her father which serve as her “call to adventure”, instead happens after only fifteen minutes. The show then could have taken us with the characters on their journey into the unknown reality of a world fifteen years after a total collapse, through ruined towns, abandoned suburbias, streets still littered with abandoned and rusted cars, trade caravans and small fortified villages with distrustful inhabitants to culminate with the scenes in a ruined Chicago.
Instead we got three woefully unprepared characters (even those who should have been prepared!) and a scene of attempted rape.
Not-Katniss, the female main protagonist, is a cliché rebellious teenager more suited for a contemporary teenage drama than Revolution, too curious for her – and her asthmatic brother's good – despite 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. She is supposed to be our main character, but unlike Katniss Everdeen she isn't a composed individual aware of the world she's living in; in fact, I found her to be neither compelling nor sympathetic.
Not-Katniss' 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.
Maybe worse, the man I could muster up the most sympathy for was Giancarlo Esposito's character who just wants to get the job done and get back to his wife and family – and he's the bad guy!
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 who had gotten together with the elder Matheson after his wife's death.
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 on 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.
Guns, Swords & the Monroe Militia
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 equaling the pre-collapse population numbers. Add to this literally billions of rounds of ammunition 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 offense 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 advantage that modern gear, guns and armor have to offer? Hell, you could have horse-drawn modern artillery, mortars and what not, and the only vestiges of modern arms (let alone modern kit) we see are the two dudes posted outside of General Monroe's tent. 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.
Secondly, swords. They wouldn't be using swords. Period. Like every non-gunpowder army before them they would use polearms. They are easy to make and require way less training. 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.
I'm sorry if this came across as wholly negative but given what the show aims to be I was greatly underwhelmed by what I saw. I'm sure you can find even more points to nitpick if you analyze it more. You might also 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.
Sorry, the more I think about it the less the story and its characters make sense. 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.
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