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Monday, October 01, 2012

A completely impartial TV program review.


 Revolution: The Cast

For the moment, I'm going to completely bracket the fact that NBC's Revolution is a blatant, soulless rip-off of my friend Steve Stirling's Emberverse series. Instead, I'm going to give it an objective analysis, focusing on the strengths and flaws of the series, as based upon my viewing of the first two episodes.

1. It's a blatant, soulless rip-off of the Emberverse series.

OK, I tried. But there's no getting around this fact, and this fact ripples throughout the plot. The fact that it is a thinly-disguised ripoff ("How about we let guns work? That'll keep him from suing, right?") with hot-rod flames here and there and a new monkey-fur dashboard warps the storytelling, rendering it a mess that doesn't work on its own terms.


Remember the Porsche "makeover" in Bachelor Party
 Revolution is exactly like that.

2. Is there anything good about it? Sure--the cast is solid and workmanlike, with Billy Burke a credible heroic lead. Which is critical given his role in the story.

Giancarlo Esposito (a perpetual favorite of mine since the too-soon gone Bakersfield PD) is his usual excellent self in a supporting role as a lieutenant of the Bad Guy. No one stands out in a bad way, but they're all pretty well flat, save for Esposito who manages to wring hints of complexity out of the script. I'm willing to excuse initial 2D characterisations, though--it takes time to flesh out characters. In addition, the sets and camera work are decent and intriguing. The swordfights are ridiculous, but fun in a lightsaber-duel way.

3. And the bad?

Let me channel my father for a moment and borrow one of his favorite exclamations used when faced with needless irritations: "Oh, my achin' ass."

Oh, my achin' ass: the writing is a such a paint-by-numbers, hackneyed disappointment. And I think that stems from the fact it is a badly-disguised ripoff.

The world isn't believable on its own terms. Look, the creator, Eric Kripke, is known for supernatural horror (e.g., WB's competent Supernatural), not sci-fi. But here he had to adapt someone else's well-thought-out sci-fi world building, and do so in such a way that the lawyers could say "Someone Else is probably not going to win a lawsuit." Which meant the only thing to come to a screeching halt was electricity. Which, yes, is a civilization ender.

Alas, he had to sneak in an X-Files-ish IT WAS CAUSED BY A CONSPIRACY! as part of the obligatory Slow Reveal, but hey--that seems to be the echo chamber at work. As I mentioned before, the Slow Reveal is perfectly legit--indeed, it's an essential part of long-form storytelling. But the Adapt/modcop has left a giant plot hole which makes what I've seen so far largely idiotic, at least as far as coherent storytelling goes.

Oh, my achin' ass, Kripke: THE GUNS.

The firearms--she a'work!

There are roughly 270 million firearms in civilian hands in the United States. That's roughly 89 guns for every one hundred people.

You don't have to be a math whiz to know that that's a lot of guns. Leaving aside government arsenals (i.e., your local National Guard armory).

Which means there are going to be a lot of guns floating around, and even more entering circulation, after the lights go out.

Which leads me to the problem of Our Bad Guy, General Sebastian Monroe, head of the "Monroe Republic." Now, warlordism would be the natural result of a systemic collapse of civilization, so no problem. But...just how did Our Bad Guy (and by implication all the other warlords) successfully confiscate the firearms? Mechanization is dead (steam power should still work--but, oopsie--PLOT HOLE!) in the series, and there's no air cover, no tanks, no AFVs (at least none that need electricity to operate). Without extra firepower, your local confiscatory warlord doesn't have the force multipliers to pull this off on a regional basis.

"I'm here in the name of the Monroe Republic to take your guns! Hand 'em over or -- [fusillade of gunfire, followed by thud of falling Republican Guards.]" Then there's the slight matter of the sudden availability of military-grade hardware which still works--machine guns, grenades, mortars, claymore mines, missiles--and lots of survivors who know how to use them, and are willing to train others to use them.

I dunno--maybe the folks of Illinois are remarkably sheep-like and happy to assume the position? Hmmm.

No, in most places, it wouldn't work like that, or at least not for long. Our Bad Guy's Army would bleed out fast, and he'd be reduced to a small power base in short order. And even if you managed to take most of them away, there's sufficient gunsmithing and machine tool knowledge out there to ensure you're still going to be facing repeating rifles. Then there's the matter of the other warlords sneaking in weapons to keep your Army tied down, distracted and whatnot.

Speaking of which--Our Bad Guy's Army spends an inordinate amount of time in the field in their Civil War style white tents, which is a hell of a good way to weaken yourself in the medium term. Basically, the disaffected are going to be making your life hell in the parts of the realm where the Army is not, and your loyalists aren't going to be able to work as hard for you in civilian life. Also, remember your rivals arming your disaffected. Hell, your inner court just might pull a Byzantium and lock the capital city gates behind you after you leave.

So, no. Unconvincing on its own terms, which is...a slight problem.

Other storytelling problems:

Steam power--it still works. Trains, improvised road vehicles and tractors? None to be seen. Oh, my achin' ass.

Our protagonist family waits a week before leaving Chi-town. Which means that, barring a series of thus-far unrevealed miracles, they should be dead. Especially when all they are bringing with them is two kids' wagons not-very-full of foodstuffs.

You probably wouldn't organize your new feudal villages around McMansion subdivisions, what with all the soil being paved over.

There's the cliched Mom-is-stronger-than-Dad-and-does-what-he-should flashback moment that made me yawn.

Contra the story, the cities--especially metropoli like Chicago--are going to probably be empty for a long time. And in much, much worse shape. They are simply too far from the food, and too tempting as targets to salvage/looter forces from the rural areas.

The script could have wrung a lot more heartrending pathos from the collapse. One nerdy-thug-robber in a dirty suit...underplays that.

Our Bad Guy doesn't run Chicago, but he gets a uniformed military goon squad through the gates, no questions asked to attack Our Male Hero. Um...I'm thinking...probably...not.

 People aren't going to look that nice 15 years after civilization collapses, both clothing and health-wise. And the younger generation is going to think differently, especially those with fainter pre-collapse memories. The survivors are going to be more eccentric, too.

This brings up another storytelling problem: it doesn't "think" from the perspective of survivors who have seen everything die, and have struggled to rebuild some semblance of a life. Rather, we see modern people who think pretty much the same way as us pre-crisis, but now they have to herd sheep and pay taxes in crops.

And only one reference to religion? I'm left with the distinct impression of the Apocalypse According to Aaron Sorkin--and no, that's not a good thing.

Overall, I can see why people would watch it, but only if you don't think too hard about it.

Which is a *lot* like an Aaron Sorkin show in that respect.

14 comments:

  1. Yep. 15 years after the collapse of civilization, the only survivors are models from The Gap.

    With one exception: "I see chunky people."

    Must be a pretty good food surplus to support our ex-Google character, who still looks pretty fluffy.

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  2. Oh, and not that it's a soulless ripoff or anything, but I keep mentally inverting the 'M' insignia to a 'W' and forgetting that our warlord's name is "Monroe", not "Walker".

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  3. Thanks for saving me the time of wasting my time on That Which Is Not A Rip-off Of Something Else But Really Is.

    I enjoyed The Change series (at least the first three books) too much to get aggravated by this show.

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  4. Well, that was... a pretty damned good review!

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  5. Well, as a collector of post-apocalyptica I'm probably still going to check out as many episodes as I can stand when it comes out on Netflix. Not much out there these days. Jericho was good for the first half of the first season, but later so much infrastructure returned, it lost much of the post-apoc feel and turned into more of a Jack Bauer conspiracy thriller. Second season was hastily cobbled together and blew chunks. Jeremiah is soft-core porn with non-entities Luke Perry and Malcom Jamal. BBC's Survivors was watchable, but tanked due to ratings. What else is there TV-wise?

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  6. I can respect that. If it weren't for the Emberverse series, I'd be much more willing to overlook the flaws and give it a chance.

    As to other post-apoc...can't think of anything. I only saw one episode of Jeremiah, so I can't speak to it overall. It had Straczynski's usual strengths and weaknesses, from what I can remember.

    I think Jericho was a lot better than Revolution, and depicted the struggle to survive pretty well. I think the fact it was an original (or original enough) idea gave it legs. But I think the "CONSPIRACY!" angle was, as here, a weakness.

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  7. I guess I forgot The Walking Dead if you want to count zombie apocalypse. I'm in the second season and find it quite enjoyable.

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  8. I will check out emberverse on your recommendation. Funny, I recall picking up one of the books and B&N and reading the dust flap about so and so defeating the "Church universal and triumphant" and wondering if this was some dig at Catholics. Just goes to show you can't judge a book by the dust jacket.

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  9. Nope--the Church Universal and Triumphant is an actual cult in the American West.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_Universal_and_Triumphant

    Considerably different from the universal Church. :)

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  10. Wow. My knowledge of actual cults is quite bad.

    Anyway, my normally unreliable public library had a copy of Dies the Fire, so I scooped it up.

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  11. I haven't bothered to watch the series, because the premise is so dumb, but there's an even bigger plot hole than you think, if it's only electricity that failed. Anything with a diesel engine should still work. That means there are cars, construction vehicles, etc.

    On the other hand, since all chemical reactions are an exchange of electrons, if electricity really doesn't work, everyone should have died pretty much instantly.

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  12. Good catch on the diesel, Mike!

    As to the electricity, I think that the Big Reveal is going to be some device that interferes with artificially-generated electricity.

    Probably some kind of device/process held by the Nefarious Unseen--one that allows some use of electricity (via the medallions) but otherwise blocks the use. Those who hold the medallions are the Resistance to the Nefarious, who no doubt are living the life of Reilly. The .00001 Percent.

    I'm sure it's going to be an ill-conceived plotting disappointment, but you never know.

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  13. My opinion – admittedly somewhat biased – is that using "it's all some conspiracy, and we must reverse it" absolutely wastes this premise.

    It subtracts the awe. If you're going to change the laws of nature it should not be something that someone cooked up in a lab; that's sort of hubristic. Just for starters.

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  14. This is obviously an old post, but I stumbled across it. The problem with firearms would be the lack of replacement parts and ammunition, not the lack of guns themselves, albeit Illinois is not a pro-gun state.

    In actual combat, trained soldiers can easily go through hundreds of rounds in short order. I would assume that random civilians would use even more ammunition to achieve even less. After 15 years of people battling each other, it seems safe to assume that ammunition would be extremely scarce, if available at all.

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