Most people have probably heard that NBC has jumped on the post-apocalyptic bandwagon with a new show for fall called Revolution.  Helmed by executive producers including J.J. Abrams, and kicking off with a pilot episode directed by Jon Favreau (the Iron Man films and, of course, Elf), there appears to be a fair amount of anticipation for the show (and NBC is doing a ton of promotion, including theater pre-screenings of the pilot in select markets).  The anticipation might just be studio-generated hype, or earnest and ongoing interest in the post-apocalyptic genre, but, in my mind at least, there is also the fact that network tv has an abysmal track record with the genre, and I expect some are probably interested in whether this show will totally trainwreck despite the big names attached.

The series premier (ie, the pilot episode) will air on September 17th, but the studio has already posted the full episode, which I watched this past weekend, on their website and Hulu.  Here it is (link below if wordpress drops the embed):

Watch the pilot on Hulu

In case you don’t have time to watch the episode now, here’s the overview per NBC:

Our entire way of life depends on electricity. So what would happen if it just stopped working? Well, one day, like a switch turned off, the world is suddenly thrust back into the dark ages. Planes fall from the sky, hospitals shut down, and communication is impossible. And without any modern technology, who can tell us why? Now, 15 years later, life is back to what it once was long before the industrial revolution: families living in quiet cul-de-sacs, and when the sun goes down lanterns and candles are lit. Life is slower and sweeter. Or is it?

On the fringes of small farming communities, danger lurks. And a young woman’s life is dramatically changed when a local militia arrives and kills her father, who mysteriously – and unbeknownst to her – had something to do with the blackout. This brutal encounter sets her and two unlikely companions off on a daring coming-of-age journey to find answers about the past in the hopes of reclaiming the future.

There are some problems with this synopsis in relation to what actually happens in the pilot, especially the fact that the world we see is hardly “sweeter.”  In fact, it is clear pretty early on that life is much like fuedal times, except with the new peasant class under the heel of paramilitary militias rather than armies in service of royalty (though the difference is largely irrelevant to those on the bottom).  And the militia in the pilot doesn’t just arrive, as implied by this synopsis, the villagers are already paying tribute taxes to them already–class structure and questions of unjust oppression are obviously one of the themes the show will engage with, which is a good thing even if it is done with such stark good/bad delineations.

Anyway, picking on the synopsis is a bit cheap, but it points in the direction of what I want to get at here, which is how familiar, even derivative, the show’s setup seems in the first episode.  The armed militia versus peasants angle is one familiar from David Brin’s 1985 novel The Postman, and the mediocre Kevin Costner film based on it, as well as several other post-apocalyptic settings.  I fully expect that the militias in Revolution will exhibit similar stereotypical character traits as the Holnist survivalists do in Brin’s book (misogyny, fascism, etc.) because they are defaults for this type of obviously-bad bad guy that frequently emerges after the apocalypse/collapse.  There’s usually little nuance in this, but these authoritarians do move the show into the dystopian genre as well and allow for the possibility of rebellion from their ranks (which we see in the pilot).

As for life in the village, the pilot delivers too little on how exactly it works.  The story rushes along with little exposition as to the day-to-day existence of common people, which to me is a weakness that goes hand-in-hand with the short format of a tv episode.  Compare, for example, the degree of detail about everyday life one gets in The Hunger Games and how this serves to set up the rest of the novel’s events (and I’ll get to the comparison between Katniss and Revolution protagonist Charlie in a minute).

Perhaps the most striking similarity with an existing work, however, is with S.M. Stirling’s Emberverse books: the basis of the apocalyptic event that thrusts people into pre-industrial manners of living.  Now, there are a limited number of interesting apocalyptic events, so one must expect some overlap and shared use, but both Revolution and the Emberverse books use a kind of unexplained, global-scale EMP event that renders all electrical devices unusable that is pretty rare in the genre.  It’s fair to assume the show’s writers are familiar with Stirling’s popular books.

To their credit, the writers of Revolution have eliminated the most annoying part of Stirling’s scenario/setting: guns still work in the show, even if they are somehow relatively scarce (and apparently outlawed by militias, for citizen use anyway) in what used to be the quite gun-friendly USA.  In the Emberverse books, on the other hand, gunpowder is somehow also broken, which is a bizarre addition that is quite obviously a mere plot device to allow the author to write what amount to a medieval adventure story. (I honestly enjoyed the first couple books, especially the diversity in possible human social groups, but they were mostly straightforward adventure/war novels.)

Likewise, in Revolution the reason for the apocalyptic change is a central plot point, whereas, at least early in the Emberverse books, it gets frustratingly little attention or discussion.  The hints at a “why?” for the current state of affairs, along with an almost-magical technology that appears briefly and somehow circumvents the lack of electricity, are the strongest reasons someone like me might continue to watch Revolution.  Overall, this element works with the (probably overdone-in-the-genre) quest plotline set up in the pilot.

Finally, the similarities between Charlie, the young lady protagonist in Revolution, and Katniss in The Hunger Games seem pretty obvious.  I won’t belabor outlining them here, but the bow-wielding, self-sufficient, strong-willed (if sometimes lacking foresight), sibling-saving, parent-less, teenage, female lead in the show is familiar and immediately relatable to the audience because of our familiarity with Katniss.
Now, I’m certainly not trying to say that Revolution is merely ripping off a few well-done things and amalgamating them into a digestible-for-tv format.  Allusions to other works and idea borrowing are pretty unavoidable in the genre.  I am, however, wary of what this show might do that is actually interesting for those who are familiar with the genre.  Will there be a real revelation about people and the world, as implied by the word origins of “apocalypse,” that does something different than what has come before in literature/film in the genre?  Or will this just be another setting-driven adventure with little insight or novelty?

  1. mightysupers says:

    Good review. Revolution looks like another Tera Nova to me.

  2. sarahsss says:

    The trailer looked awful–not only derivative but also kind of cheap. You suggest that television has traditionally been a particularly bad medium for post-apocalyptic stories but, in the right hands, it would probably be perfect–novelistic. If you keep watching, I’ll be curious to know how it plays out.

    • nightwork says:

      I agree about the possibilities for a p-a story to work well in the medium, it just hasn’t in the past (to be fair, there are not a ton of examples). The only shows that I can think of doing a reasonably good job with p-a were Firefly and Jericho (and the former was more focused on other things and really just in a far-flung p-a setting). Some would use it as a counterexample, but I’m not much impressed with The Walking Dead at all (books or show).

      I’m planning to check out the first couple episodes of this and see how it develops. Will let you know.

  3. Josh M says:

    Abrams is best when he’s working under the constraints of making a movie, in my opinion — I recently watched “Super 8” and really enjoyed it, and I felt he handled “Star Trek” just fine. But giving him any kind of oversight on a television show is dangerous: I’m not convinced that he learned his lesson from “Lost.” I watched a few segments of the pilot, and I can’t tell if they’re trying to mock/critique the fantasy pastoral of an agrarian p-a society, or if they’re genuinely trying to construct a viable society in just such a setting. And the cynic in me reads the image of the gutted-out Prius in the village as a sly “guerilla marketing” tactic by Big Oil, although I’m probably reaching a bit there.

    It’s also difficult for me not to see the “Fallout” game series at work in the overall aesthetic here, although there’s clearly a very big difference between post-nuclear-war life and post-weird-disruption-of-electricity life. But the games DO create a nostalgia-heavy aesthetic, and I see that cropping up here (memories triggered by ice cream containers, taking shelter in a pizzeria, etc).

    Last but not least — I’m with you on “Walking Dead,” both the show and the books.

    • nightwork says:

      I thought both Star Trek and Super 8 were decent but not great. The latter had the misunderstood, humanized monster trope that is so cliche and obvious at this point . . . that always bugs me.

      I thought the Prius thing was kind of clever in a “this [technology] too shall pass” kind of way that pokes fun at the futility of buying one’s way to sustainability in an industrial world, which I see as slightly different than the obfuscation of big oil on climate change and globalization and the like.

      I’m not sure about how the treatment of a reasonably well-functioning p-a society will shake out, especially since the show moved so quickly into adventure/quest mode. It is the obviousness and Manicheanism of the “good, regular, country people” vs “brutal, Hobbesian warlord and followers” (with the Han Solo- or Mad Max-esque, mercenary-seeming uncle as the outlier and only other option, who will come around to the good side) that bothers me most. I’ve already seen that movie/show/etc. done well enough times to be bored when it is done in a mediocre fashion.

  4. […] mostly-poorly-received post-apocalyptic drama will air its second episode tonight.  I reviewed the pilot/premiere two weeks ago and am planning on at least watching another 2 episodes.  So, I was looking over […]

  5. […] the acting is pretty mediocre.  That and a number of problems with the premise that I pointed out here and Seb Breit covered exhaustively here […]