If there’s anything that can kill a sci-fi story, it’s a setting. More specifically, how the characters deal with the setting in which they live. How powerful would Deckard’s hunt for Batty and crew in Blade Runner have been if it weren’t for the dirty, perpetually rained on city in which it takes place? While Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer bring gravitas to their final encounter, I think it’s the downpour, suffocating Ford as he struggles to live for one more second against a foe that outclasses him in every way, that makes it such a grandiose sequence. Pick any good sci-fi (Akira, Robocop, Fallout, Snow Crash, and more), the common thread is the attention paid to their settings. Without it, storytelling dies on the vine. Like last year’s Terra Nova, NBC’s Revolution has been a great example of this.
Post-apocalypse, which Revolution is, is a genre descended from the survival novels of Jack London or William Golding. They’re about mankind taking the worst that could be thrown at it, and then trying to pick up the pieces. By literally setting the world back to pre-Industrial Revolution days, Abrams and crew had the easiest gimme in television history in terms of episodic writing. Setting it in the stretch between Chicago and Philadelphia was also a great choice, as they could shoot for hours out in the MidWest countryside. Much of the show’s initial run of episodes involved the characters trekking from one city to the other, which isn’t an insignificant feat (I live about 3-4 hours east of Chicago, and I’m not even halfway to Philly from there). Couple that with the loss of medical advances, punishing summer heat (judging by the scenery), and the show’s supposedly overwhelming threat of the “Monroe Militia,” and there’s a really taut, suspenseful show in there somewhere. This isn’t even getting into the region’s deep connection to industrialization, which is easy fodder for world-building.
None of this factors into Revolution.
Apart from the bleeding out death of a minor character, survival doesn’t play a role in the series. Hollywood vanity also creeps too much into the production to show off the effects of walking the (perpetually bright, sunny) country, so makeup and clothing remain intact no matter how hot, humid, dirty, or shot at an episode’s scenarios get. In fact, the only reason it seems to take so long for the intrepid heroes to get to Philly is because the girl in perfectly pressed belly shirt and hip-huggers…well, gosh darn it, she keeps wanting to help folks along the way. What would be a day-long trip by car for me just seems like a brisk afternoon stroll for these people…even the fat guy with the bushy beard. Furthermore, nobody ever seems to be scared of the militia outside of any week’s given episode, the way they strut around with hardly a second glance at their surroundings. Hell, nobody’s scared of their environment, even with the repeated threats of rape against Charlie, the aforementioned girl (some of them literal, some metaphorical, all of them cheap). You’d think they were on a television show.
J.J. Abrams and series creator Eric Kripke would rather show illogical gunfights, MacGuffins, conspiracies, and big important speeches about family or such. Anything other than a post-apocalyptic world where every modern convenience is gone. Far be it from me to tell them how to write a show, but why contrive such a scenario, the same way all fiction is contrived, if you’re not going to bother dealing with effects beyond, “Oh, we no longer have working iPhones”? Why set it in the MidWest and not deal with the region’s chaotic, Great Lakes-driven weather? Why bother trying at all?
The one bright spot in the show is also the one its runners are quick to shit on. I’m talking, of course, about Giancarlo Esposito’s Neville. The show alternately presents him as both a menace and a fool, continually being shown up by Charlie and badass Uncle Miles*, yet he’s always the one to show a level head. He’s also the sole representative of the Midwesterner’s most peculiar trait: boiling, passive-aggressive rage hidden behind (maybe?) genuine, “gee shucks” friendliness. It’s the kind of anger that’s been built up in a region that has been undermined by deregulation and numbed by consumerism. That’s built up as the home of “real America” values come election time, but ignored or demonized when those “real Americans” actually need the attention.
When introduced, Neville speaks platitudes about God and duty. He’s later shown being caring towards his wife and son. However, unlike the soft, cookie-cutter exploration of “family” Revolution tends towards, Neville has a more bitter edge to him: a put-upon cubicle worker in the rat race, whose family was the only positive force in his life, he, naturally, sees them as an extension of himself. Any threat against them is a threat against him, and in the post-blackout world, he has no qualms about eliminating threats. An obnoxious neighbor finds this out in a flashback, as does a rival militiaman using Neville’s son for leverage**. I could see myself becoming a fan of a show starring this guy and showing interest in its premise.
That kind of show would be dirty. It would be morally gray. It would deal with how class, politics, and environment correlate. It would be a show that needed no MacGuffins or intentionally vague conspiracies that put everything in a boring, insulated bubble. That show wouldn’t be Revolution.
*This element of the show, standard to a lot of old goofy adventure shows, shows a bit of a racist undertone to it, which also taints what makes Neville so compelling a character.
**The fall finale has another moment in Miles threatening Neville’s wife. Of course, the natural outgrowth of this motif would have been to end the episode with Neville in some way getting one over on Miles. NBC, however, believes Billy Burke über alles.