Revolution Hit the Reset Button. Will It Work?

Brow Beat
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March 25 2013 10:45 PM

Revolution Hit the Reset Button. Will It Work?

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Tracy Spiridakos.

Brownie Harris/NBC.

This post contains spoilers about tonight’s episode of Revolution.

June Thomas June Thomas

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

The biggest surprise of the 2012-13 season was NBC’s early success. As Alan Sepinwall put it, “In the fall, the network—a joke for most of the 21st century—was shockingly the highest-rated of all broadcasters, thanks almost entirely to three shows: Revolution, The Voice, and Sunday Night Football.”

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NBC can take little credit for the NFL’s popularity, but it clearly understood how important The Voice was to Revolution, which followed it on the Monday night schedule: Once the singing competition crowned a winner in November, Revolution—an action show set 15 years after the world’s electricity has gone out—disappeared from the schedule. It only returned last night, after four months off the air, when The Voice was once again in a position to deliver a big audience.

Of course, a show needs more than a strong lead-in to be a hit, and Revolution’s success has always puzzled me. As Alyssa Rosenberg pointed out in Slate, Charlie, the central character, played by Tracy Spiridakos, was a textbook example of the “personality-free female action star.” She was handy with a bow and arrow, and courageous enough to stand up to a much stronger enemy, but otherwise there wasn’t much to her. Despite watching every episode of Revolution, all I really know about Charlie is that she’s blonde and loves her brother. Worse, the show seemed shockingly uninterested in its own premise: The power went out all over the world, but, other than a handful of mysterious pendant-wearing figures, no one seemed too worried about figuring out how to turn it back on, and we learned next to nothing about how civilization had responded to this pretty significant development.

But the show was indeed a bona fide hit. The last pre-hiatus episode drew 8.7 million viewers in overnight ratings, and then added 69 percent more from DVR viewing. The Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan offered seven very convincing explanations for its success: In essence, the show is straightforward, uncynical, not too challenging, and studded with beloved and talented actors like Giancarlo Esposito, Billy Burke, and Elizabeth Mitchell.

That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t feel like a formula for the long-term.

Judging from last night’s episode, Revolution’s creators agree with that assessment. “The Stand” was one long push of the reset button—even if the changes it set in motion don’t feel significant enough to address the show’s primary shortcomings.

In the 10 episodes that aired in the fall, the core group of characters—Charlie, her uncle Miles, his sometime girlfriend (and rebel fighter) Nora Clayton, and former Google exec Aaron Pittman—were chasing Charlie’s younger brother, Danny, who had been captured by a cruel militia group. They were all opposed to the militia—though Miles, the rest learned along the way, once helped to establish it. Their main motivation, in any case, was personal—it was all about reunifying the Matheson family. Only the militia are armed with guns, which meant our plucky heroes’ mission was a David and Goliath challenge. Thanks to some swashbuckling swordsmanship from Miles, a former Marine, and some Katniss Everdeen-style bow work from Charlie, the Matheson siblings were reunited with each other, and with their long-lost mother Rachel, at the end of Episode 10.

The happiness was short-lived, however: Soon everyone discovered that in order to save her kids, Rachel had supplied the militia with a power-amplifier that allows them to fly helicopters and unleash firepower on a scale that could completely annihilate all rebel forces.

It was a great cliffhanger to end on—but not, unfortunately, a good place to start over. The good guys’ ability to avoid militia bullets always stretched credibility to its limits, and once the crooked few could fire machine guns and rain down flames from the sky, it was just too much to watch our heroes outrun them and then miraculously discover a fire-proof safe room in the one bit of shelter they happened upon. If the militia are serving up full-on extermination, fast running and a well-aimed arrow can’t do much to stop them.

Unless, that is, the plucky rebels know exactly which helicopter to target and can then land a direct hit on the power amplifier—thus grounding the entire fleet. Tonight, Danny Matheson managed just such a shot and then took a hail of bullets to the chest. The reset was complete—no longer chasing Danny, Charlie and Rachel have a new motivation: revenge on the militia leaders who slaughtered the fair-haired boy. Danny’s death also provided another rather convenient plot development: Finding herself armed with just the right tools, Rachel sliced into her son’s body to remove a bit of medical technology that had been implanted years before—apparently, an experimental asthma treatment was powered by a device that is still generating power even in blackout conditions.

There’s something unsettling about this. Would Rachel and Charlie have slipped into the shadows if the militia were only targeting other women’s sons and brothers? The personal motivation may have made them relatable before, but we do want some other-directed bravery from our heroes. If they want to defeat the Big Bads of Sebastian Monroe and his mean-spirited militia, Charlie and co. need to find comrades-in-arms. But for some reason, Revolution is more comfortable having the new American revolution be a fight between a grieving family on one hand and a massive force on the other. This show was always going to demand considerable suspending of our disbelief. But it should at least make dramatic sense. For now, I have my doubts.

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