NBC’s Revolution (Mondays, 10 p.m. ET/PT) features swordfights, gun-fights, and crossbow fights, chases on horseback, chases on trains, and chases on foot. It is gripping, loud, and entertaining. Who cares that its high-concept premise (all electricity in the world suddenly and mysteriously stops working, resulting in the collapse of civilization) is taken directly from S. M. Stirling’s pulpy sci-fi Emberverse series of novels? Or that the show’s politics can plausibly be interpreted as Hollywood’s stereotype of a Tea Party worldview?
At its heart, Revolution is a road show. In each of the 10 episodes that have aired to date (more will run early this year), the central band of misfits—led by Miles Matheson (Billy Burke) and his niece, Charlie (Tracy Spiridakos)—tangles with the forces of the sinister Sebastian Monroe (David Lyons) and his creepy henchman, Tom Neville (Giancarlo Esposito). The heroes, joined by onetime multi-millionaire computer nerd Aaron Pittman (Zak Orth) and explosives expert rebel Nora Calyton (Daniella Alonso), have thus far engaged in a long-running chase to rescue Charlie’s mother, Rachel Matheson (Elizabeth Mitchell), and brother Danny (Graham Rogers). Monroe wants Rachel in his clutches because she’s a scientist who knows why the lights went out; he wants Danny as a way of gaining leverage over her.
The show manages a degree of sophistication without ever becoming obscure. On one hand, it’s clear that Monroe and Neville are baddies, that Miles is an honorable rogue in the mode of Han Solo, and that the crossbow-wielding Charlie is a retread of the Hunger Games’s Katniss Everdeen. On the other hand, flashbacks to before and just after the blackout show the plausible, even sympathetic, motivations of both bad guys, while also showing that the good guys (especially Miles, Monroe’s former number two) aren’t as pure as the driven snow.
The other building blocks of the show are a mixed bag. Esposito is clearly the show’s best actor, albeit a bit of a scenery-chewer at times. Spiridakos’s Charlie, dubbed “Bratniss” on Internet message boards, seems whiny at best. The writing is uneven. But the production design may be the best on TV: There’s a budget big enough for lots of location shooting and movie-quality (though sparingly used) special effects.
On top of all this, the show does appear to have something of a political message, although not the one some might expect, given that producer J. J. Abrams maxed out his donations to the Obama campaign. It’s clear from the first episode that the militia maintains its tyranny in large part because it has disarmed the population and controls nearly all guns. Rebels say that they’re fighting to restore the United States, and they use American flags as their standard. The militia’s tyranny is expressed through its tax collection, and Esposito’s pleasant speaking style more than slightly resembles that of the incumbent president. Writing soon after its premiere, Kregg Jenke observed that Revolution appears to provide conservatives with “something out of Holly-wood that doesn’t mock them, but resembles them.”
As the plot has evolved, however, the “conservative” messages have become less clearcut than before. The basic facts of Revolution’s backstory—civilization collapses once technology disappears—reflect a distinct lack of faith in the ability of individuals and communities to solve problems absent central control. And despite some pro-gun statements from the heroes, the mere fact that the militias did somehow manage to control (almost) all guns surely indicates a lack of confidence that broad firearms ownership can guard against tyranny. Neither of these is exactly a core liberal message—the show isn’t preaching for single-payer health insurance or same-sex marriage—but they do reflect a technocratic, managerial, government-knows-best attitude that’s anathema to the show’s ostensible libertarian/Tea Party appeal.
And yet, however much one may quibble with its politics and talent, Revolution does bridge both “old” (three network) and “new” (Internet, DVRs, several hundred cable networks) styles of television drama more successfully than any major broadcast show of recent vintage. Before 2000 or thereabouts, the great bulk all TV dramas (a few soapy shows like Dallas and L.A. Law excepted) consisted almost entirely of self-contained episodes. This required tight writing and mandated that every episode present a satisfying five-act story with a clear beginning, middle, and end. But it didn’t allow for significant character development, it tended to prohibit major cast changes except in the first or last episodes of seasons, and it placed huge limits on plot sophistication.
Producers sometimes broke the rules, but stories were generally awfully simple. As the networks’ dominance dimmed, and cheap-to-produce reality programming combined with digital video recorders made reruns far less lucrative, plots grew more finessed across the board. This made police and medical procedurals, which still predominate, better by any standard—i.e., characters can actually grow in ways they couldn’t before—but has proven even more dramatically fulfilling when it comes to high-concept science--fiction and political shows with central mysteries and sprawling plot arcs.
While Abrams’s Lost and Fox Network’s 24 were commercial and critical successes, dozens of well-acted, decently reviewed, big-budget shows—V, FlashForward, and this past year’s Last Resort, to name three—ended up with plot twists that cost them viewers and, eventually, a place on the air. Revolution, however, seems to have hit on the right formula: Every episode has a clear beginning, middle, and end, but also reveals some carefully selected piece of the show’s mythology, and manages to answer a few big questions. This gives extra value in syndication while still offering the storytelling viewers demand. This sounds obvious, but it’s hard to pull off in practice, and Revolution does it better than anyone else has to date.
So far it seems to be working. Revolution isn’t a perfect program, but it’s doing well among the key audiences advertisers like; it’s different, fresh, and, yes, a bit revolutionary.
Eli Lehrer is president of R Street.