“Revolution” is the latest network TV version of this familiar post-apocalypse scenario: A ragtag band must struggle for survival after a global catastrophe. This time the disaster isn’t a nuclear war, plague, or zombie outbreak: electric power goes out in a worldwide blackout, leaving humanity helpless without the Internet, smartphones, etc. As order breaks down, ruthless militias take control of the countryside.
The story begins 15 years after the big blackout when the bad guys, the Monroe Militia, raid one of the idyllic communes the good guys have set up, in order to capture the father of young Charlotte “Charlie” Matheson (Tracy Spiridakos), who is believed to have the secret to turning the power back on. A shootout ensues, Charlie’s father is killed, and her brother Danny (Graham Rogers) is captured. Charlie finds herself on what NBC publicity calls “a daring coming of age journey,” to reunite with her uncle, rescue her brother, restore the U.S.A., and reboot civilization.
Produced by J. J. Abrams (“Lost,” “Fringe,” “Alias”), “Revolution” has some of the feel of his other projects, but lacks their verve and originality. Abrams’ method of taking customary tropes (e.g. island castaways, paranormal weirdness, spies) and putting a fresh spin on them falls short here. “Revolution” evokes the themes and looks of recent films and TV shows like “Terra Nova,” “The Walking Dead,” and “The Hunger Games,” but fails to provide enough of a twist on the well-worn proceedings.
The “Revolution” storyline suggests many problems that the script (so far) doesn’t have the imagination (or courage) to deal with. For example, the story takes place 15 years after the power outage, but the Midwest where the story takes place is inexplicably depopulated and overly verdant (i.e. ivy-covered skyscrapers). Was there a war or famine that killed off millions? If so, buildings are intact and the biosphere appears to be thriving. Were there mass suicides due to a lack of access to Facebook and Twitter?
One of the tragic side stories involves a former Google executive (Zak Orth) who says he would trade his $80 million “for a roll of Charmin.” Also, while it’s been 15 years since the apocalypse, through flashbacks we learn that civilization began to collapse just eight weeks after the outage! Civil society existed for thousands of years before electricity, yet it can’t survive for more than a few weeks without it? Which begs the question, is this society really that precarious? And why? As NBC (parented by General Electric) explains in the show’s publicity, “our entire way of life depends on electricity.”
Just what is the “revolution” of “Revolution?” The “politics” of post-electricity America exist to provide excuses for shoot-outs, swordfights, explosions, and lines like, “You should have killed me when you had the chance.” Out of the post-blackout disorder and rapid collapse of the U.S. government arises the Monroe Militia, a multiracial band of bullies who favor feudal social relations and Civil War era fashion. Although called a “militia,” a term that evokes racist, reactionary survivalists, the Monroe-ites instead exhibit tendencies that the tea party associates with the left, mainly an intolerance for privately-owned firearms and a consuming hatred for the USA. In an irony that “Revolution” shows no interest in exploring, the Constitution itself associates gun ownership with “a well regulated militia.”
Militia leader Captain Tom (Giancarlo Esposito, riveting as the cold-blooded meth entrepreneur Gustavo in “Breaking Bad”) could be seen as a reference to the ultra-right’s delusional image of Barack Obama: an anti-American despot. Presented with an American flag retrieved from a rebel’s house, he orders his men to “burn it.” This connection, however, is surely unintentional; the series’ makers are clearly going for made-for-TV patriotism, not outrageous political camp.
Therein lies the main problem with “Revolution:” the premise suggests many interesting possibilities, none of which are taken up by the storyline. The series brings up intriguing questions it has no intention of answering, such as: Why would the rebels be so willing to risk their lives to resurrect a governance system with so little popular support that it collapsed in a matter of months? Or, given that the first Industrial Revolution happened before electrification, and was driven by steam power, why couldn’t humanity explore alternative power sources? And finally, what’s more interesting: yet another tedious post-apocalyptic power struggle, or the social leveling that happens when a one-percenter runs out of toilet paper?
“Revolution” is on NBC on Mondays. Check your local listings for time.