Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Joining a Revolution

     Have you ever realized how fragile our  world is? How much we take our resources for granted — our food, our water, our heat? Even if you’ve never traveled to a foreign country where the sun is your only source of light, I’m sure you’ve lost power to your house before. It’s incredible how difficult life becomes when there’s suddenly no more water coming out of the faucet.

     I wondered once what might happen if one vital domino to our way of life were to come crashing down… and then I realized how likely that is to one day come to pass. It’s happened to every major civilization, all the way back to Rome and Babylon and ancient Egypt. Empires always crumble, and as ours grows taller it also starts to teeter more precariously. If it ever were to fall, I wondered (and still do): how many people would survive? What would they even become?

     So if you’ve ever acquired a hatchet for “safekeeping”; if you’ve ever made sure that you can start a fire without using up fifty matches; if you’ve ever selected a catalog of edible plants for your bookshelf; if you’ve ever tried to calculate the length of time it would take to walk to another city by foot… then check out this brief, spoiler-free explanation of the perfect show for you.

Hogwarts Revolution, A History

     Back in 2012 when ABC announced that they were going to ‘wow’ audiences with a Tuesday night action series called Agents of Shield, NBC naturally selected a thrilling, fast-paced show of its own to compete for the airtime. That show was Revolution, and it was created by up-and-coming director J.J. Abrams (known for his work in Lost, the Star Trek remakes, and also known as the pioneer heading up the production of the next Star Wars movie. He's kind of a big deal).

     Despite the show’s initial welcome from viewers, competing with Agents was more of a hindrance than a help to it. Many of the fans who enjoyed Revolution would actually be watching ABC on Tuesday night, and record Revolution (or find it On Demand) for later. Both shows were fascinating, but Agents had a better resume before its very first episode (not to mention that its fans had the promise of becoming more deeply-involved with future Marvel movies). Television is a brutal business.

     Still, in the end Revolution lasted longer than it might have been expected: two entire seasons. It may not have gained as loyal a following as the one-season cult classic Firefly, but it’s still on my list of shows worth watching because of the concept that it addresses…

     A world without power.

The Plot

     Revolution is a mix of “present-day” events in North America, mixed with flashbacks to the night when the entire planet lost all electricity without warning.

     After the country's infrastructure collapsed, straggling American survivors eventually managed to find (or rather, rediscover) ways to sustain themselves on farms and ranches. Now, fifteen years later, communication overseas has all-but ceased. Families have reformed, while others have remained permanently separated. Instead of sneaking out of the largely-agricultural land of Mexico, people are now sneaking back into it. However, in the early years, alliances and militias and warlords rose up: for example, the Republic of Texas, the Georgia Federation, and the California Commonwealth.

     However, we find ourselves in former New England, now called the Monroe Republic because it is run by mighty dictator, Sebastian Monroe.

     Monroe has sent a regiment of his soldiers to a small farming village, where lives Charlotte “Charlie” MathesonCharlie was just a little girl when the lights went out, but now she barely remembers a time when people weren’t pitted against each other for resources. She’s never killed anyone — she’s just a teenager in a wide, wild world…

     … and she’s about to find that out when the militia march through the gate demanding her father’s surrender. It seems he may know something about why or how the lights went out.

     The next two seasons follow Charlie, former Google employee Aaron Pittman, and a constantly-changing band of travelers as they struggle to cross the country and find out what made the world lose power… and if there’s a way to turn the lights back on again.

The Appeal

     If you haven’t figured it out already, the hook of this show is almost entirely in its conception: what happens to a modern world when you take away its electricity.

     This isn’t The Book of Eli or Reign of Fire where nuclear wars or deadly creatures have left ninety-percent of the earth as uninhabitable, ashen desert. It’s not a zombie apocalypse where people live in fear from a deadly virus of rotting corpses (although those of you who enjoy the thrills of following Rick Grimes’ shenanigans will enjoy the gritty world of Revolution). It’s simply a world where we’ve lost everything, and we must learn to rebuild ourselves. Our culture. Our humanity.

     But the setting isn’t the only reason people are hooked by this show: it’s also the characters we get to meet… or more specifically, the tangled social situations they get dragged into. When you’re trying to fight an old-fashioned war, your resources are much more easily lost. That means that with one battle, a small band of fighters can take over a country… or lose it. Friends can become enemies, enemies become friends, weaklings become heroes, and heroes become weaklings. We see newer (and increasingly scarier) unlikely alliances forming between desperate people who have nothing to lose… between people who have done far more than merely wound one another in the past. And they often make it clear just how they feel about one another.

     And yet they still band together. Some are fighting for love. Others are fighting for power. Others are fighting just to stay alive.

The Rating

     It’s a solid PG-13.

     Violence: Old-fashioned sword-fights, gunfights, and fistfights. Sickness, festering wounds, and torture of all kinds (physical and psychological) are also present. It’s a gritty power struggle, and they don’t sugarcoat it.

     Sex: There wasn’t much at the beginning of the show, but there were flashbacks that implied several various hook-ups, some particularly twisted. Thankfully, most of it was implied and little was actually shown. But by Season Two, affairs were suddenly and inexplicably everywhere...

     And haven't modern birth control methods basically been lost to humanity in the fifteen years since the blackout? Geez. Frankly, I don't know whether to be disappointed or relieved by the fact that no one's pregnant yet.

     Language: It’s a world where everyone’s fighting for resources: language is pretty course. NBC was careful not to carry it overboard, but there are plenty of curses and colorful remarks as people continue to get snagged in various unpleasant situations.

The Genre

     In Revolution, nature has not only gotten on with itself and overgrown the not-so-majestic ruins of our civilization, but human beings have survived as well. They’re not thriving by today’s standards, but there are certainly plenty of towns and even small cities starting to grow back.

     People initially stocked up on all the crossbows and canned foods they could find, but they’ve also had to learn (or rather, re-learn) how to farm, hunt, and build. Admittedly, I do wish we had seen more of such activities; half of the reason why people enjoy adventure literature is because they want to learn the details of what adventures are like: we want to see what people eat, how they catch it, how they prepare it. We want to see just as much of the journey as the destination... but unfortunately, Revolution conveys week-long journeys without so much as a montage on occasion. Robinson Crusoe it ain't.

     Clothes are all permanent hand-me-downs for the most part, which generally makes for a believable setting (with the exception of many irritating skimpy shirts that ought to have lost their color over a decade ago).

     Armies have acquired muskets and cutlasses and herds of horses (which makes for some pretty epic old-school battle scenes).

     Wounds are actually serious in this show; characters with asthma and anemia and most other “tolerable” modern medical conditions are now weak or dying. Death is a real and permanent threat.

     While the battle tactics and civil-war-style espionage may not seem particularly incredible at first glance, the real genius of the show is that we don’t see these stunts being done by rough pioneers and true-grit cowboys: we see them done by people who would much rather flop on a couch and have Eggo waffles for breakfast.

     When Charlie and her peers run headlong into danger, we sense the true risk of what they’re doing. They’re normal people that have been shoved into doing difficult things, and whenever we start to forget it, they remind us with a little modern humor.

     So is it worth it?

The Decision

     That depends. If you enjoy realistic adventures and need a season or two of something to tide you over until your favorite show returns, then Revolution may be about right for you. It’s not the most incredible, emotion-inducing show I’ve ever seen, but it was certainly still good, and I still felt restless every week until I’d finally seen the latest episode.

     The plot is intricate and well-thought out; the actors are deeply invested and deliver stellar, sometimes touching performances; the overall design of the show is immersive and detailed (though annoying things like female wardrobe do tend to fall through the cracks on that… what a shock); it’ll certainly make you think twice about how much you rely on your smart phone; and you may just decide to sign up for those Kung Fu classes you were considering.

     Unfortunately, the show wasn’t really given any major, solid resolve at the end of Season Two… so it feels somewhat incomplete. There’s enough story left in it to spark a slew of twenty paperback novels.

     And if you’re worried about getting caught up, then don’t be. There are only two seasons. You could finish it in less than a month if you wanted to cram it — but it might last you ten weeks if you go at a more leisurely pace.

     If you’re still on the fence, just give it time. You may very well decide to put it off, and that’s fine; it’s not going anywhere. Of course, there are plenty of videos on Youtube that might interest you if you’re more of a visual person (like myself). This one is NBC's official trailer, which is perhaps the best sample of Season One (more specifically, Episode One) that you can get.


     Unlike some of the other shows I’ve reviewed on this blog, Revolution isn’t a clear-cut instant classic to be gushed about. It’s the kind of show that some people are fascinated by, and some just aren’t interested in. But those of us that do watch it have gained a strange new sense about the world. We’ve started making mental lists of emergency supplies; stocking up on hardy clothing; looking into durable crossbows; or relying a little less on those fake logs when we set up a blaze in the fireplace.

     Revolution is a reminder of how precarious our lives in the western world really are - without making us think that zombies or robot uprisings will be the death of us. Revolution is the show that will haunt you... because it could be just one natural disaster away.

1 comment:

  1. I can condense my entire feelings for Revolution into one word.