Thursday, November 01, 2012

Revolution: The Newest TV Show Worth Watching

Revolution is slowly becoming The Show of the season, in my opinion. It's certainly the best new sci-fi on television in a long time, but as a near future, dystopian, what-would-we-do-if-the-power-went-out? series, it's got appeal for the fans of westerns/historical dramas about power and fighting, fans of the Hunger Games, sci-fi enthusiasts, survivalist types who want to double check the likely methods and outcomes of the characters actions and remedies. It also has a trek-across-the-country-on-a-mission element that fantasy fans often enjoy. Sort of J.J. Abram's take on Firefly without the spaceship.

The premise is simple, yet complicated. It's fifteen years in the future -- fifteen years after the power went out completely. No electricity, no internet, no phone service, no internal combustion engines. There's a certain stability yet instability which starting the fifteen years post tragedy allows for. Those who've survived the transition to a non-powered culture, have learned how to survive in it which means a shift in how we go about doing the necessary and how we structure our society. Flashbacks to the days after the blackout feed us breadcrumbs about what happened to the world and how the characters went from mild mannered insurance adjusters to maniacal killers, etc.

Yet it's not just about the characters, there's a fabulous techno thriller mystery that underlies it all -- why did the power go out? And go out so fully and totally so that no one could start it again? That surely isn't the sort of big "oops" that caused the giant blackout that stretched from NYC to Detroit the summer of 2003. And slowly over the first six episodes of the season, we're being dropped hints which suggest that if humans turned off the power, then there has to be a way for humans to turn it back on. And there is perhaps a bigger and badder villain out there who'll make Monroe look like nothing more than an opportunist ... but now I'm getting ahead of myself.

While I love the layers upon layers, onion-feeling to the show, I also love that the it's primarily Midwestern.

Let me tell you, this is the most airtime rural Indiana's gotten on scripted prime time television since half the cast of The West Wing got stranded in a soy field courtesy of the state's former county-by-county time zone laws. (Note: Indiana stopped that strangeness not long after said episode of The West Wing aired. Coincidence?) Then again, the location makes sense. I'm not the first one to point to Gary, Indiana, as the perfect example of what happens to modern infrastructure when it's not kept up for several decades -- those Life After People shows did just that when they explored how proximity to Lake Michigan would affect a major city.

So here we are, wandering around Indiana, and Chicago, and Wisconsin, without power, without jack shit except what we can make, grow, and scavenge. In fifteen years we've gone from looters and random violence, to militias and communes. Guns still exist and work, but bullets -- the fancy, reliable kind -- are scarce. But musket balls? Those ones you can cast over a camp fire and have to be loaded with powder and a ramrod? Those are back in vogue. Of course, they're illegal for non-militia citizens to own. There's no second amendment when there's no more US Government.

The set dressing becomes its own character and proves endlessly fascinating. The pilot shows us a little village living in what was obviously once a suburb cul-de-sac. They have five sturdy, cookie cutter houses with brightly painted doors that scream, "I was bought at the Home Depot!," with backyards full of corn, and out front a Prius full of dirt for growing herbs. The interiors of homes, hotels, even the shells of amusement parks are part modern, part 19th century, part medieval. Candles and flame-filled sconces abound. The military camps in tents that look straight out of a Civil War reenactment. People carry cloudy glass flasks and plastic juice jugs. They wear cloth that looks not-quite-homespun and carry rucksacks which are distinctly modern with their zippers and seaming. The show has yet to bore me with their depiction of modified-modern convenience.

It's those rucksacks, and the fact that they're carting them, along with bedrolls and weapons, on foot, from Chicago to Philadelphia (and farther) that puts me in mind of Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried." Of O'Brien's characters, the Vietnam soldiers who knew precisely what they carried and how much each piece of it weighed because wherever they went, they humped every piece of their gear there with them.

There's also a disturbing and dramatic mortality element to Revolution, and not just in the kill-or-be-killed situations so often facing survivors of the blackout. Unlike shows like Grey's Anatomy, where the characters live through all manner of should-be-deadly injuries and usually go back to being completely freakin normal within the course of a year if not merely a few episodes, injury in Revolution is almost always fatal. There are no fancypants hospitals. There's the occasional doctor, but that doesn't mean you won't die of tetanus. Or asthma  Or infection. We've yet to hear anything of pandemic or viral or microbial illness, but it's bound to enter the plot line sooner or later. While they've not alluded to it, I'd bet that after the power went out, illness swept the country. But for now, most of the medical/mortality troubles come from characters bodily defending themselves, usually with swords -- the kind of swords with hilts that double as brass knuckles -- and that sort of thing is almost always fatal in a world without Emergency Rooms. Stomach wounds. Nasty buggers.

But there is a touch of humor and a good deal of poking at what we consider to be oh-so-important today. One of the characters tells how, before the blackout, he owned a plane -- one of the perks of getting rich while working for a place called Google.

"Google, that was a computer thing, right?" says the girl who was only seven when the blackout happened.

"It was an internet thing," he replies. Then, "Eighty million in the bank and I'd trade it all, right now, for a roll of Charmin."

Then there's the woman who, after fifteen years without power, still carries around her iPhone, because that phone was the only place where she had pictures of her kids.

The iPhone, and later the same woman's printed copy of The Wizard of Oz -- poignant for several reasons, not only was this the book she read to her children, but the character is the ultimate Dorothy, trapped a continent away from her family but no amount of wishing and heel clicking can get her home -- these are the only item we've been privileged to see in "The Things They Carried" style, but it's already proven damn powerful. I look forward to the writers further use of this narrative tool to color and define the characters.

Makes you really stop and question what we keep squirreled away on bits and bytes.

At the same time that it makes me stop and praise certain analog tendencies, it devastates me to look around my home and think about what I might have to leave if I were in the same situation -- namely all the books I'd have to leave. The thought of abandoning my books in order to carry with me necessary things like food and water is almost as disturbing as the medical regression that has made our lives so cushy. (What can I say? We all have our priorities and our soft spots.) And that doesn't even touch on my love of Charmin.

Highly Recommended