Monday, September 17, 2012

A first look at NBC's Revolution

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.

The Visuals
The visuals are both the highlight and the bane of Revolution so far. While it's clear that you're dealing with copious amounts of CGI the show uses it rather effectively, from deserted airports to suburbs that have been torn down and turned into farmland. Production values are really high for a TV series. The world looks great, if a generally 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. The Matheson family lives in a small village surrounded by a high, makeshift wooden palisade with animals and gardens inside and everybody working the land. Kripke and Favreau 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 actual destruction within the cities and less 'the jungle conquered it all back'. Because Chicago is way too green in places it shouldn't be. Even rural roads won't be fully overgrown after fifteen years of barely any use, and large cities bristling with concrete and steel are a whole other league to begin with.

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 Music
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.

The Pacing
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. Yes, I'm unabashedly critical, but this is a multi-million dollar production for which they had plenty of time to sit down and figure out plot and setting liabilities. If a bunch of geeks can point out the flaws on first sight you as a producer and director are doing something wrong. And what Revolution primarily does wrong with its first episode – and this may factor in with the other problems I had watching this - is that it attempts to force two to three 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 - 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.

The Characters
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 (Moustache Dad from the Twilight movies) is a bad-ass. Giancarlo Esposito of Breaking Bad fame seems, all things considered, like a reasonable guy.

Not-Katniss, the female main protagonist, is a clich̩ rebellious teenager more suited for a contemporary teenage drama than Revolution, too curious for her Рand her asthmatic 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 РNot-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
The militia itself and the “other republics” mentioned are just as baffling. The latter 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 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.

Conclusion
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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Sebastian P. Breit is the author of the alternate history novel Wolf Hunt. You can find news, reviews, and commentary on all matters regarding WW2 on his blog, The War Blog, and follow his writing progress on his personal website.

11 comments:

  1. I just wanted to say, that I was totally mystified by this serious also. I mean, there just is no way we would slip back to 13th century way of doing things. I mean, Lamps! Kerosene Lamps are still in houses and stores all around the world, and can use all sorts of oils. We don't need to go back to Torch Sconces and Pillar Candles for light. And who is making those very nice candles anyway?

    This doesn't even get into the basic premise that the ElectroMagnetic Force doesn't seem to exist anymore... which creates all sorts of navigational issues. Also, what exactly happens to the Van Allen Belts, that are suppose to keep all life on the planet from frying? Shouldn't that have "Gone Out" to?

    I just wish the writers did a lot more research before starting out on this one.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, kensa-oni. I've got to admit that the science behind the change doesn't really bother me that much since I'm sure they'll never even try to come up with a physically sound explanation for it. I'm more concerned with the fact that they chose to go the post-apocalyptic route and then failed to take reality into account at all.

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    2. I really liked how getting hit with a crossbow bolt lifted people off their feet.

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    3. Haha. I guess they never saw that episode of Mythbusters. O Hollywood physics.

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  2. Actually, there are people making good swords--they're in the SCA, the Society for Creative Anachronism. But given that, not too many of those would survive, and of course anyone using a sword would drill, drill, drill. Swords, however, are only good for close-up work, and then in the hands of skilled people. Pikes--much better.

    I didn't watch the first episode with an eye to nit-picking it, because I figured they'd have no real explanation for their Deus Ex Machina, and I just wanted to see what they did, but that said, I noticed practically everything you did.

    The scene in the airplane was STUPID. Who in a post-Apocalyptic world wouldn't set a sentry-guard? The hotel being lit by torches--aw, man, that annoyed me. Stupid, again.

    Anyway, good analysis.

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  3. If batteries don't work, oxidation and reduction chemical reactions don't work, then biological chemical processes like burning wood and breathing don't work either.

    Assuming you accept unified field theory as true, suppressing electromagnetic force also means suppressing the strong force that holds subatomic particles together as atoms.

    Planetary explosions, anyone?

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  4. In America there are very few that can work steel into useful weapons but that's not true in Asia.

    Wouldn't such a world be an oppourtunity for nations like China to just take over?

    Or am I revealing a critical plot point?

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  5. The idea that no one has guns is what kills the show for me. There are something like 250 million guns in the US. In surveys nearly 50% of homes report owning at least 1 gun. If for every gun owned there is also 100 rounds of ammo (a fairly low estimate in my opinion ..that's only one box basically....some people shoot that much ammo in a weekend of target practice) that's 25 BILLION rounds of ammo in the US alone. To put that in perspective of how much ammo that is...You could shoot off 10000 (that's ten thousand) rounds a minute.....every minute....of every hour...of every day...of every year for 15 years and still have more than 17 BILLION rounds of ammo left!! I'm sorry no Militia armed with flintlocks and swords would be taking anyone's guns away....mostly likely they would all be dead long before hand.

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  6. Also my main problem is what happened to all the smart people? I think of myself as moderately intellent person but I know people who can make electronics from very simple things. For example I have learned from a good friend how to take apart a solar lamp to get the solar battery from inside. But I could just go on and on but I think that everyone gets the idea.

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  7. My thought about why they are using flintlock firearms is that I would assume that much of the ammunition would have been expended by then. There are people who reload like myself but without smokeless powder, you can't really reload. However, you can make black powder pretty easily and can make musket balls just as easy. If this were to happen to me, I would actually go out and scrounge as much powder as I could as fast as possible and save ammo for hunting and self defense.

    I agree that there is plenty wrong with the show but I doubt the military would just disband after we lost power. There are plenty of things that could happen but that is not a likely scenario. However, I just will watch and enjoy as it's a show and they can't make everything plausible. It's entertainment so I accept that it has to deviate from what I would accept. Nice write up by the way.

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  8. Great blog btw! As far as what would work and what wouldn't work.. you would think anything with batteries would be working.. like drills or flashlights.. Well not if an Electromagnetic Pulse went off disabling all electronics. A HEMP device can deliver a burst of electromagnetic radiation that can disable all electronics within its magnetic field. I'm assuming this is what happened when the power went out but we just don't know it yet since this would probably be the most realistic explanation just on a really large scale. Although i don't see why they wouldn't be using steam engines instead of riding horseback..

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