Way back when J. J. Abrams’ latest hit TV series, Revolution, debuted in October 2012, I was initially underwhelmed by a show that, though armed with an imaginative, promising premise, seemed uncertain how best to execute on it.
The pilot episode, which introduced us to a world where electricity had simply vanished in a split second throwing civilisation into chaos, wasn’t a failure by any means introducing just enough tension and drama and “what ifs” to keep me watching till the end.
But it wasn’t compelling enough to make tune in for the second episode nor to reconsider my decision not to watch any further episodes even when I read about its blockbuster ratings in the US which were partly responsible for dragging last place network NBC briefly back to the top of the ratings.
In retrospect I probably should have given it another chance since shows like Fringe and Stargate SG1, which I now consider to be some of the best TV I have ever watched, didn’t grab me by the proverbial short ‘n’ curlies at the start of their debut seasons.
But I persevered with them, journeying with the makers of the TV till they found their storytelling rhythm and began delivering on the exciting premises they had outlined at the beginning of their shows’ runs.
For reasons I can’t explain but which likely has to do with the surfeit of exceedingly good TV on offer at the moment making it all too easy to dismiss a show that doesn’t wow you at the get-go, I never offered Revolution the second chance I gave to these other shows.
And after having finally heeded my house mate’s urgings and watched all of the episodes in the series telecast so far, I am happy to admit that I shouldn’t have been so hasty.
Revolution has indeed found it sweet storytelling spot, and is delivering, week after week, consistently good episodes that have me actively anticipating the next instalment in its apocalyptic tale.
And here’s the five things I love about a show that has carved out its own distinctive portion of the post-apocalpse genre which as we all know is swarming with more shows that a group of survivors overwhelmed by a fast moving zombie pack.
(1) Brilliant execution on a tantalising premise
After a hesitant start when it seemed unsure of the best way forward, Revolution has parlayed a great idea into a well told, fulsomely-articulated story.
I was a more than a little concerned by the quick, almost unseemly hurry that the series displayed in hurrying through the events of the apocalypse itself in the sort of “nothing to see here, move on” style displayed by the Battlestar Galactica mini-series (which of course became one of the defining shows of the Noughties), with the electricity pretty much off before the opening credits on the pilots had fully rolled.
But by taking advantage of a narrative much loved by Lost, another of Abrams’ superbly successful TV efforts, the intermittent backstory, it hasn’t just fleshed out the backgrounds of the characters but of the world itself and the conspiracy of misguided scientific endeavour that plunged humanity back into the agrarian age.
Revolution has wisely not over used this device, doling out the backstory revelations in easy to digest portions that never detract from the present tale they are trying to tell.
By so doing, they have delivered handsomely and then some on all that initial promise.
(2) They are providing answers and lots of them
Yes we all love a good mystery.
Nothing makes us keeping watching a show that a well turned “Why” or “What if?” but keeping the carrot dangling for too long with no chance of ever catching it and viewers may well conclude there is a better narrative meal to be had elsewhere.
The makers of Revolution have wisely worked that out – it’s likely that the lessons of Lost and sundry other shows since where the reveals came at a glacial pace in the hope of keeping the tension just so have not just been learnt but acted upon – and have given us insights at a regular, but not overwhelming rate, into why electricity came to disappear from the face of the Earth and the role the various players had in making that happen, or reshaping the world that followed in its wake.
They have magically managed to keep the balance between the grand theatrical reveal and mystery of what is unknown taut and steady and as a consequence watching has become a must-see event since you may miss out on something important should you miss an episode.
(3) Characters that are more than 2D cardboard cutouts
Giving all your characters sufficient breadth and depth, especially when you are dealing with an epic ensemble show like Revolution can be a challenge of exhausting proportions.
But bit by bit through finely wrought conversation, selective flashbacks, and narrative twists that have caused various characters to reveal, willingly or unwillingly, their true often-flawed colours, the show has introduced us to people who have a real reason for being there and aren’t simply superficially-generated slaves of narrative momentum.
When your characters are as instrumental in moving the story forward as your plot, you have constructed a sophisticated well rounded show that isn’t in danger of running out of storytelling grunt any time soon.
And characters that we will want to spend time with for as long as the show is around.
UPDATE 29/5: Here’s a great opinion piece on the strength of Revolution’s characters by Bill Harris of the Toronto Sun.
(4) Death is a real and present danger … as is pain and sorrow
One of the great downfalls of any show in a scarred, post-apocalyptic landscape is rendering your characters essentially bulletproof. (Dark Angel, an early-Noughties drama from James Cameron, is one series that fell into just such a trap.)
In other words, even though they are living a precariously balanced life in a dog-eat-eat world, the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune seem to slide right off them like they’re covered in some sort of human-sized teflon coat.
Alas in the real world that’s never the case and while losing any character we care about is tough, it does lend credibility to a show, especially one that wants us to believe, as Revolution does that it’s telling a harrowing story of a world where the value of human life only extends as far as its usefulness to someone else.
We may be emotionally shellshocked, and loudly lament the passing of the character, such as when Danny Matheson, beloved brother of Charlie, and long separated son of Rachel died heroically defending the rebels from an aerial attack from the newly energised forces of General Monroe, but we respect the show for staying true to its core idea that the world they represent is a dangerous one and survival is never a given.
I am impressed that Revolution is willing to kill off key characters and expose those left behind, as well as those watching the show, to the inevitable pain and sorrow that follows.
(5) It is willing to possibly completely re-shape its premise if needs be
Now this is where I venture, rather riskily I might add, into the realm of supposition and conjecture.
From the way the show is tracking at the moment – the most recent episode “Clue” had Monroe and his forces including the dastardly Randall Flynn (Colm Feore) poised to enter the mysterious “The Tower” in Colorado, which can turn the power back on for everyone, with Rachel and Aaron hot on their heels, and a mysterious group watching from inside – it is highly possible that the original premise of the show, that there is no electricity, could be turned on its head by one flick of the switch.
It would not be the first time a show has done this with Once Upon a Time ending its first season with the lifting of the curse which had sent all the fairytale characters hurtling into our flawed world, ripped from the moorings of their magical land.
While you might think that pulling the rug of the original premise out from under a show might send it into a calamitous death spiral, quite the opposite happened.
Once Upon a Time built upon this momentous change, which still left the characters with both the consequences of the curse being enacted and then lifted, and took the narrative in an even more muscular, engaging direction.
I suspect much the same would happen with Revolution.
The world has changed forever and won’t simply revert back like a magic wand has been waved to its original pre-apocalyptic state.
The juice may be flowing again but the world is still monumentally messed up and there is still a great deal of drama to be had.
So yes I was wrong to dismiss Revolution so quickly.
It has grown into a startlingly good show and one that I am sure will come back from the summer break – its finale airs on June 3 in the US – bigger and better than ever.