NBC’s Revolution Asks Viewers to Suspend Belief Far Too Often
As a scenario planner, I have a few rules about the future.
First there is no data about the future. That means you cannot be certain of anything.
Second, the future is an extrapolation of the present. Good work on the future does not discount anything about the present. It may choose to abandon it, depending on social, economic, environmental, technological or political necessity or whim. As an example, take the iPhone. You can certainly create a future without an iPhone. To do so credibly you need to explain what happened to those 400-million devices, and what precipitated the dramatic decline of the platform. As some “futurists” put it: no magic and no miracles.
Good science fiction follows these rules, especially when creating near-future alternative realities. By abandoning these principles, the backdrop of the story becomes a distraction. People want the setting to be logically consistent so they can concentrate on developing a relationship.
And that leads me to NBC’s Revolution, which violates these two principles many times, creating an environment that just isn’t believable.
And now the review.
Science fiction demands a suspension of belief. Events, such as alien invasions may precipitate the future depicted. Seemingly small changes in humanity or technology may also prompt changes subtle and profound. Power is drained from the Earth. Sky. Sea. Land. So begins the new J.J. Abrams and Adam Kripke collaboration known as Revolution on NBC.
Unfortunately, the suspension of belief does not stop with the show’s assertion that all power generation has ceased, seemingly at an atomic level. Batteries in flashlights were as affected as hydro-electrical sources. Computers were as quiet as the airplanes that fell noiselessly from the sky until their final impact.
As an ardent science fiction fan, I can accept that first far-fetched, physics-defying premise. But requests from the writers and producers to suspend belief keep coming. Throughout the pilot episode, implausible future details detract from a character story that just can’t emerge above the dissonance of false futuristic notes. Small human enclaves apparently carved out of the remnants of a Wisteria Lane cul-de-sac sit in near-pristine condition amid scruffily cultivated farmland — the concrete and asphalt that previously surrounded them nowhere in sight. The militia pitches retro-civil war tents, rather than house their battalions in the tons of brown camouflage canvas and nylon created for multiple wars in the Middle East. Handmade crossbows and recurves offer defense rather than repaired hand-me-downs from raided sporting goods stores. The militia carries barrel-loading muskets in a country renowned for its prolific gun ownership. Bullet manufacturing doesn’t require power. Bullets can be made manually from reclaimed casings, melted lead and gunpowder assembled in hand-powered presses. There may be a backstory to these incongruous details, but I doubt we will ever have an opportunity to see it revealed.
I get the pure delight of a filmmaker attempting a quest set in the modern era, but they only get so many chits of suspended belief. And this show uses it allotment early on.
The creators should have created an inventory of the plausible. Take the raw materials of today and extrapolate forward against the backdrop of the plot. I don’t care what situations the characters find themselves in, the inventory of hard goods manufactured in and for America will last well beyond the 15-year time horizon asserted by Revolution’s creators. This is no Highlander where alternative timelines and immortality play a role. Revolution places its heart at the point where all good science fiction begins: a story of displaced regular people facing extraordinary circumstances. But Revolution’s environment and details don’t ring true. Viewers will have a hard time placing themselves in the story, imagining for themselves the details between their now, and the show’s then. I found myself so irritated by the incongruities foisted upon the human characters that I failed to reserve enough mental cycles to attach myself to any of them.
As a contrast, Robert Rodat’s and Steven Spielberg’s Falling Skies offers a very realistic setting for its implausible premise. The “Falling Skies” character’s raid modern hospitals for modern drugs. They round-up and reuse modern weapons. Falling Skies places the action against a backdrop of the modern world. A world struggling to survive, yes, but one viewers can clearly relate to in the reclaimed bits and pieces cobbled together by its characters.
Revolution’s world of 2037 also needs more intriguing details. What, for instance, happened to Chicago’s gangs? Am I to believe that a sergeant with one lame white-boy tattoo overtook the U.S. Military in all its even manual bad assery and also took out the likes of the Adidas Boys, The Almighty Latin Pachucos, Black Disciples, the Four Corner Hustlers (Aka 4CH), the Insane Majestics and the Traveling Vice Lords, just to name a few of the gangs with which nearly 100,000 Chicago’s youth affiliate.
And what about overgrowth and curation? In what is supposed to be an emotionally heart-wrenching moment the camera pans over a dilapidated Wrigley Field. I would rather see a Wrigley Field occupied by the “Cult-of-the-Cubs” keeping the stadium immaculate until “opening day” returns (as an aside, baseball is a low-tech sport. In many dystopian futures activities like baseball continue on a local level as the culture tries to maintain a memory of its previous normalcy amid whatever disruption facilitated the collapse of civilization—yes, all day games, but hey, the world was plunged into a pre-industrial age alt-narrative where even hamsters can’t generate power — I wonder if balloons still stick to people’s hair?).
Revolution’s creators plopped random acts of arcane futurism on their digital reels, and apparently did little research on Chicago despite an NBC-funded budget.
Then there is the “quest” presaged by Pilot director Jon Favreau and producer J.J. Abrams in interviews prior to the show’s launch. Unlike the hard-fought battle of Falling Skies 2nd Mass slugging its way toward Charleston, the first quest in Revolution appears little more than a leisurely stroll from a suburban neighborhood of Chicago into its inner-city. And despite admonitions of the threats “out there” beyond the local cul-de-sac commune, the threats are pretty mild, and relatively easily abated. Even the search for Billy Burke’s absentee Uncle Miles gets resolved with a single question, over a bar, in the first place the fellowship enters. Lead character Charlie, played by Tracy Spiridakos is no Frodo Baggins, and she isn’t even a Katniss Everdeen. With such easy resolutions, I find it hard to imagine viewers making an emotional investment.
Revolution’s final scene punctuates its incredulity, as the black woman that Graham Rodger’s Danny so randomly collapses near scurries upstairs after the militia leaves, opens up her USB amulet, and powers up a light and a steam-punk computer. You see some kind of Unix-like boot sequence, hear a modem screech and then, without invoking an application or typing a command, a conversation ensues with some mysterious other. At the beginning of Revolution a child is shown playing with an iPad. Perhaps they’ve only managed to hack telephone lines and not the Internet, but regardless, they would most likely not be powering up a computer housed in a wooden box, seemingly battened together with twist ties and bubblegum. A computer in this future would probably still say Apple, HP or Dell on it, even if they had to downgrade to Windows 3.1 to get the modem to work. (And how about the monitor — did all the HD monitors get turned into ashtrays? One is more likely to find an abandoned pre-HD, 1024×768 square LCD monitor lying around than a green screen of any kind, most of which were recycled decades before this show’s opening sequence).
With a network television budget, the creators should have spent time getting the details right so viewers could spend their time involved in the story—connecting to characters the writers want us to relate to, to feel compassion for, perhaps even love. Revolution’s lightly told initial quest and implausibly drawn post-apocalyptic tale of a great power suck may well not make it much past its premier date because its creators, fan boys, or the Gods of fan boys all, got their wires crossed when creating their new world. Perhaps it was this creative short that caused the power outage in the first place.
Daniel W. Rasmus
Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.