NBC's Revolution and the Rise of the Bland Female Action Actress

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
Sept. 17 2012 11:56 AM

NBC's Revolution and the Rise of the Bland Female Action Actress

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My friend, the Time television critic James Poniewozik, in discussing Revolution, NBC's new post-apocalyptic television drama about a world without electricity that begins airing tonight, described the character distribution as "a kind of TV bialy, very, very flat in the center." In an attempt to appeal to the kids these days without appearing to insult the adults, Revolution has seeded itself with a number of intriguing grown-ups in the margins, including Breaking Bad's Giancarlo Esposito as a militia enforcer who helps patrol an America returned to a Revolutionary War-era state, but it's chosen as its main characters two young, pretty things—Graham Rogers and Tracy Spiridakos as the son and daughter of a scientist who knows the secret to a world-wide blackout—so bland that it's as if NBC drafted them from the CW. In that sense, Revolution may herald not the return of quality science fiction to network television, but something rather different: the rise of the personality-free female action star.

Hollywood has a curiously inconsistent attitude towards failure, condemning some actors or directors to outer darkness after a box office disaster or a ratings humiliation, while giving others chance after chance. Action movies and television shows in particular have acted as a kind of cushion for male actors who wouldn't have the chops to make it in more tasking roles, while also shielding those stars from being judged as box-office poison.

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2012 was supposed to be the year that Taylor Kitsch, who made his name on television in Friday Night Lights, became a giant box-office star. Instead, all three of the vehicles built around him, sci-fi epic John Carter, alien-invasion military-fest Battleship, and drug war drama Savages flopped. But it wouldn't be at all surprising if studios keep trying to build movies around him none the less. Jason O'Mara did time in the Resident Evil action franchise before starring in the deeply terrible Fox time-travel-and-dinosaurs science fiction show Terra Nova, which was cancelled last season. This fall, he'll be back on CBS in gangsters-and-cowboys period drama Vegas. And as long as action movies require hunks of muscle, the blandly sweet Taylor Lautner will remain employed.

There are fewer female action stars, and in contrast to their male counterparts, they've generally been required to have some semblance of personality, be it Michelle Rodriguez's snarl or Milla Jovovich's combination of supermodel posing and fantastical action roles. When they underachieve, it's because of a sense that they have genuine talent that they've applied inconsistently. Rodriguez may never recapture the incandescence she showed in Girlfight, but she's consistently fun and watchable, even in minor roles in movies like James Cameron's Avatar. Jovovich may be content to be a B-movie starlet and anchor the internationally successful Resident Evil movies, but she has more impressive roles, like her star turn in The Fifth Element or her supporting performance in Dazed and Confused, on her resume if she ever wants to work more seriously. An improved market for female action actresses might provide more and more interesting work for women like these. But it might also create the same kind of generic action roles that are currently available to men. And Spiridakos is a perfect example of that trend.

The success of The Hunger Games, a star turn for Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, a country girl whose skills with a bow help her survive murderous contests against more heavily trained young fighters in a post-apocalyptic environment, is a clear influence on Revolution. In Revolution, Spiridakos' character Charlie is a blatant Katniss ripoff, from her wanderings in the countryside, to her bow and arrow. What she lacks entirely is Katniss's personality or sense of steel. You can send wardrobe out to find a perfectly distressed leather jacket. It's much harder to manufacture the intangibles of personality that have made The Hunger Games so successful. NBC is gambling that audience care more about the kind of exterior show that Katniss put in the Arena than the inner complexity than helped her to survive.

If they're right, and we're at a tipping point where audiences want to see women kick ass without placing the demands of acting or personality on them, we'll get more ladies with fancy weapons and an impressively high tolerance for pain. But NBC could end up making a point it doesn't intend with Revolution. Sometimes, equality means the right to be just as boring as the boys.

Alyssa Rosenberg writes about culture and television for Slate’s “XX Factor” blog. She also contributes to ThinkProgress and theatlantic.com.