NBC’s Revolution: high concept, low execution


It seems the success and cult following of ‘Lost’ has made TV executives believe a deep mythology is required to make a show like ‘Revolution’ succeed. Too bad that’s coming at a cost.


What would happen if today’s world was suddenly thrown back to the hardships of the Industrial Revolution? The premise of NBC’s new series, Revolution, poses an intriguing question about mankind’s ability to adapt to sudden change. The latest LOST clone develops and then wastes that high concept idea, hoping rather to draw viewers in with a confusing mythology involving magical USB necklaces and apparently un-aging, post-apocalyptic survivors.

TV executives see LOST and think that a grandiose mythology was the key to its success, so they develop ideas around a mythology instead of focusing on the basics of storytelling.

We can’t blame LOST for the recent surge of high concept, low execution series to premiere (and get cancelled) on prime time television. LOST started strong, establishing its characters and developing the central question of what would happen if you crashed on a deserted island. But people don’t remember that first, amazing season of LOST that focused more on the mystery of the plane crash survivors and only peppered in the mystery of the island. They remember the DHARMA initiative, pushing the button, that Richard Alpert never ages (and then later try to forget the donkey wheel, time travel, and a pointless final season flash sideways). It’s the “mythology” that LOST is remembered for, and that mythology is often associated with the show’s success. But the show’s initial focus on character created mystery without mythology. It was only after those core characters were established and viewers were drawn in and connected to them that they threw in every possible reference to literature, Greek mythology, and string theory to keep people asking questions the following morning at the water cooler. TV executives see LOST and think that a grandiose mythology was the key to its success, so they develop ideas around a mythology instead of focusing on the basics of storytelling.

This is where Revolution (and FlashForward, The Event, etc.) ultimately fails. The show is so enamored with the mythology that it forgets to develop the characters that populate its world. It mistakenly thinks that if the mythology is mysterious enough, that people will watch. But, if you don’t care about the characters, then you spend the time you would be empathizing with their situation questioning all the problems with the show. And this show needs a lot of belief suspension to really enjoy it. Why has it taken 15 years to harness steam power? Why are all the militia people wearing civil war uniforms and speaking in bad southern accents? How do computers, powered locally by magical necklaces, send messages between one another if the magic necklace has a limited range?

The show is so enamored with the mythology that it forgets to develop the characters that populate its world. It mistakenly thinks that if the mythology is mysterious enough, that people will watch.

We should care that Charlie’s father is murdered and her brother kidnapped, but these characters are so thinly painted that it’s hard to feel sympathy for her situation. Charlie suffers from the Hunger Games conundrum (and not just because of the crossbow). Charlie is a girl who grew up in a post-apocalyptic world surrounded by death, danger and desperation, but regardless of the hard life she inevitably faced, somehow she still acts like a naïve schoolgirl when the plot requires it. Her brother, Danny, is clever enough to continually escape his captors, but too slow to make a clean getaway and is immediately re-captured (and is so forgettable that even the search party trying to rescue him gets continually sidetracked). This exemplifies a bigger issue with the show’s overall storytelling style or lack thereof: they don’t know how to build suspense. As soon as Danny gets away, the militia finds him … there’s no question of whether or not he’ll get away, will they hunt him down, what happens if Charlie shows up and Danny isn’t with the militia; it just ends up being a way to fill screen time. Danny runs away, commercial break, Neville catches him, cut back to Charlie whining.

This lack of suspense is even worse in regards to Uncle Miles. In the pilot episode, the show builds up Miles as a killing machine, but what would be great, story-wise, would be to initially downplay that aspect of his character. Show him talking his way out of problems while oozing with confidence because he knows he could easily get the upper hand.  Instead, they introduce him with the most ridiculous fight scene in which Civil War Jack Bauer — I mean Miles — takes out a dozen militia soldiers single-handedly with just a sword. Well, there’s no tension anymore and no reason to worry about this guy’s safety (or Charlie’s) … he cannot be killed or captured; he is basically invincible. Luckily the show cast Billy Burke, so Miles is at least a fun character to watch, especially when he calls out Charlie for her inexplicable behavior.

And the poor execution continues. Charlie convinces Miles not to kill a murderous bounty hunter, C. Thomas Howell, and before the audience can worry about the repercussions of Miles’ mercy, Howell has captured Charlie and threatens Miles (I think it’s literally the next scene after being tied up that Howell returns to get the drop on them). They obviously brought in Howell to be a main antagonist, so this will be an ongoing battle for the rest of the … no wait … Miles breaks free and immediately kills Howell (hopefully his Amazing Spider-Man residuals are good). They even kill off one of the main search party characters, but she was so underused — and her relationships to the other characters so superficially developed — that the audience had no connection with her, resulting in a meaningless death scene. Oh, and Charlie’s dead mother is still alive and being held captive by Monroe.  That should be a great reveal, but it happened so quickly and awkwardly that it created no real tension. There is a difference between posing a question and creating genuine curiosity.

Revolution fails to create that curiosity. Hopefully now that the show has been renewed for a second season (Edit: Earlier news sources have retracted that news from NBC), the writers will feel confident enough to let their stories develop naturally, build suspense and dimensionalize their characters. Unless the blackout prevented that as well.

Photo Credit: NBC

14 Comments on “NBC’s Revolution: high concept, low execution

  1. Excellent review. It made a point that I had been feeling about this show, too. Very well written without being snarky

  2. Thanks for the great write-up of the show.

    Each time I see Charlie I find myself wishing it was Summer Glau channeling River and Cameron. I realize she was probably too old for this role, but I just don’t care about Charlie as a character the way she is now. The episode that aired tonight was the first one that was half-way decent and goes to show that character development goes a long way.

    The only real positive I can find with Revolution is that it has been a moderate ratings success and has been winning its time slot so far. Hopefully executives will take note of this in the future and possibly greenlight a serialized genre show over a procedural or a reality show.

    • The Charlie character is apparently age 20 or older, so Glau would have been credible enough. However, this isn’t a Whedon show, so the guest stars will be pulled from Supernatural and the Bad Robot stable.

      Why is it that only the sci-fantasy shows I don’t want to watch get great ratings?

  3. They renewed this show so NBC must figure there are enough folk watching. Who are these people? No one I know, or have met or will admit to it. With the renewal does that mean NBC can now tell the producers how to make it “better” and can move the show to different days and different time slots on a whine? That’s usually what happens.

    • It wasn’t renewed. It was just picked up for a full season. Many shows like this one have gotten a full season and didn’t get renewed for a second. The Event and FlashForward come to mind.

  4. I watch it and really enjoy it. I’m able to enjoy the story though rather than just nit pick. Sit back and be entertained by the unfolding story

  5. My Two Bits ( and yes there is a pun in that too ).
    Ok, let’s get this straight.
    First of all yes, J. J. Abrams borrowed heavily (just say it… stole) the idea from S. M. Stirling’s “Dies The Fire”. The differences are that man-made explosives don’t work in his novels. OK, ok… I know that a bunch of you are going to say hey that’s magic. Read the books, they’re pretty good.
    Let me give you a paraphrased quote from Arthur C. Clarke… “One man’s technology is another man’s magic”.
    Let us go on to Abram’s storyline.
    His plot is so predictable.
    The way I see it, in this storyline a group of people (most likely anti tech people) develop a tech (yes a contradiction since they have to use tech to send our civilization back to low tech) that neutralizes the conduction of electricity. My guess is that the plot allows them to neutralize the electricity to within several miles above the ground since planes loose power and crash (does that mean if you climb Mt Everest you will have electricity? ). Another guess is that it will most likely be a satellite based devices (how else can one affect the whole planet?). From the end of preview a woman has a small device that allows things to start working again with electricity ( I want to know where she is getting her power source once the device she uses overcomes the problem ), and she talks to someone else on a computer ( how is it that after 15 years of no climate controlled rooms does the computer not have to much corrosion, mold, mildew to make it work) and she gets a reply back ( Holy shades of LOST batman ). Of course the only person who has one for the good guys side is killed but he gave his device to a friend before getting killed ( but then again he doesn’t tell that person what it does ).
    So now the plot line will be for the “good guys” to discover the devices ability and then to figure out how to destroy what is neutralizing electrical conduction.
    Another sad part is that Abrams does not want his stars to look like people with low tech and I get the nauseating feeling of twilight drama in the background.
    Too bad AMC or HBO isn’t making it.
    I would rather have watched the show from the time that electricity is lost, the story of the collapse and change of civilization. Then after the show starts slowing down is when they could have moved up 15 years for this story. The already had a prewritten storyline with Dies the Fire.
    As for Charlie, how is it that a girl who is raised for 15 years with the collapse of civilization acts like a girl who is teleported from today? There are so many situations that she would not have batted an eye when it comes to protecting friends and family, instead her character acts like a person who is in present day civilization with law enforcement around. She is so boring because she does not react as a real person who is looking for her brother because as I said she would be doing everything it took to get to him and not be concerned about people she does not know.
    Oh well, Hollywood never gets it right.

    • They showed a lightning flash in the clouds onscreen, followed by thunder, so it doesn’t seem to block electrical conduction up to a certain altitude, just technology.

      The computer worked after 15 years for the same reason the iPhone still had a charged battery, the drugs in the asthma inhaler were still potent, the militia’s canned goods rations are still edible, and the Black Hawk being dragged through the woods will start up and fly in a future episode without a complete overhaul.

  6. This show has an amazing premise… but they just screwed the whole thing up… Now next week, their talking about character having to prostitute herself for the team. Sure, it could happen but does it need to? Isn’t the violence enough? I can’t watch anymore… Show 5, I’m out.

  7. Ryan,
    I understand that it’s because “It’s in the script.”
    With the great writers around there is no reason for the show to have such poorly written scripts. Instead they went and got writers who have no interest in real character build up. A high school physics teacher could have been their technical advisor and the reality behind it would be believable enough keep our interest up. In no way did they even bring in a sociologist to give them an idea of how people would be 15 years later, instead they write it as if it just happened. How sad that a great concept by SM Stirling is trashed by Abrams.

    • If your point was that there’s no evidence of great, or even middling writers anywhere near this show, I completely agree.

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