NBC’s Revolution: high concept, low execution
It seems the success and cult following of ‘Lost’ has made TV executives believe a deep mythology is required to make a show like ‘Revolution’ succeed. Too bad that’s coming at a cost.
What would happen if today’s world was suddenly thrown back to the hardships of the Industrial Revolution? The premise of NBC’s new series, Revolution, poses an intriguing question about mankind’s ability to adapt to sudden change. The latest LOST clone develops and then wastes that high concept idea, hoping rather to draw viewers in with a confusing mythology involving magical USB necklaces and apparently un-aging, post-apocalyptic survivors.
We can’t blame LOST for the recent surge of high concept, low execution series to premiere (and get cancelled) on prime time television. LOST started strong, establishing its characters and developing the central question of what would happen if you crashed on a deserted island. But people don’t remember that first, amazing season of LOST that focused more on the mystery of the plane crash survivors and only peppered in the mystery of the island. They remember the DHARMA initiative, pushing the button, that Richard Alpert never ages (and then later try to forget the donkey wheel, time travel, and a pointless final season flash sideways). It’s the “mythology” that LOST is remembered for, and that mythology is often associated with the show’s success. But the show’s initial focus on character created mystery without mythology. It was only after those core characters were established and viewers were drawn in and connected to them that they threw in every possible reference to literature, Greek mythology, and string theory to keep people asking questions the following morning at the water cooler. TV executives see LOST and think that a grandiose mythology was the key to its success, so they develop ideas around a mythology instead of focusing on the basics of storytelling.
This is where Revolution (and FlashForward, The Event, etc.) ultimately fails. The show is so enamored with the mythology that it forgets to develop the characters that populate its world. It mistakenly thinks that if the mythology is mysterious enough, that people will watch. But, if you don’t care about the characters, then you spend the time you would be empathizing with their situation questioning all the problems with the show. And this show needs a lot of belief suspension to really enjoy it. Why has it taken 15 years to harness steam power? Why are all the militia people wearing civil war uniforms and speaking in bad southern accents? How do computers, powered locally by magical necklaces, send messages between one another if the magic necklace has a limited range?
We should care that Charlie’s father is murdered and her brother kidnapped, but these characters are so thinly painted that it’s hard to feel sympathy for her situation. Charlie suffers from the Hunger Games conundrum (and not just because of the crossbow). Charlie is a girl who grew up in a post-apocalyptic world surrounded by death, danger and desperation, but regardless of the hard life she inevitably faced, somehow she still acts like a naïve schoolgirl when the plot requires it. Her brother, Danny, is clever enough to continually escape his captors, but too slow to make a clean getaway and is immediately re-captured (and is so forgettable that even the search party trying to rescue him gets continually sidetracked). This exemplifies a bigger issue with the show’s overall storytelling style or lack thereof: they don’t know how to build suspense. As soon as Danny gets away, the militia finds him … there’s no question of whether or not he’ll get away, will they hunt him down, what happens if Charlie shows up and Danny isn’t with the militia; it just ends up being a way to fill screen time. Danny runs away, commercial break, Neville catches him, cut back to Charlie whining.
This lack of suspense is even worse in regards to Uncle Miles. In the pilot episode, the show builds up Miles as a killing machine, but what would be great, story-wise, would be to initially downplay that aspect of his character. Show him talking his way out of problems while oozing with confidence because he knows he could easily get the upper hand. Instead, they introduce him with the most ridiculous fight scene in which Civil War Jack Bauer — I mean Miles — takes out a dozen militia soldiers single-handedly with just a sword. Well, there’s no tension anymore and no reason to worry about this guy’s safety (or Charlie’s) … he cannot be killed or captured; he is basically invincible. Luckily the show cast Billy Burke, so Miles is at least a fun character to watch, especially when he calls out Charlie for her inexplicable behavior.
And the poor execution continues. Charlie convinces Miles not to kill a murderous bounty hunter, C. Thomas Howell, and before the audience can worry about the repercussions of Miles’ mercy, Howell has captured Charlie and threatens Miles (I think it’s literally the next scene after being tied up that Howell returns to get the drop on them). They obviously brought in Howell to be a main antagonist, so this will be an ongoing battle for the rest of the … no wait … Miles breaks free and immediately kills Howell (hopefully his Amazing Spider-Man residuals are good). They even kill off one of the main search party characters, but she was so underused — and her relationships to the other characters so superficially developed — that the audience had no connection with her, resulting in a meaningless death scene. Oh, and Charlie’s dead mother is still alive and being held captive by Monroe. That should be a great reveal, but it happened so quickly and awkwardly that it created no real tension. There is a difference between posing a question and creating genuine curiosity.
Revolution fails to create that curiosity. Hopefully now
that the show has been renewed for a second season (Edit: Earlier news sources have retracted that news from NBC), the writers will feel confident enough to let their stories develop naturally, build suspense and dimensionalize their characters. Unless the blackout prevented that as well.