Around the Water Cooler & Looking Back: “Revolution” – The Cancellation and Why the Show Should Have Worked

THE SPECS:

Who: “Revolution” aired on NBC and was canceled, finishing its second season in May 2014.

What: “Revolution,” a science fiction thriller and action drama set in a post-apocalyptic landscape.  In Revolution, in the year 2012, scientists Ben and Rachel Matheson (Elizabeth Mitchell, Lost) developed nanotechnology that somehow caused electricity to disappear from the entire world, resulting in chaos and anarchy, particularly in the United States. People were left without vehicles and any other powered apparatuses, and the world descended into uncivilized madness, until two men, Rachel’s brother-in-law Miles (Billy Burke) and his best friend Sebastian “Bass” Monroe (David Lyons), took it upon themselves to form a martial colony that later becomes the Monroe Republic based in Philadelphia.  Other territories begin to sprout up across the devastated nation as well, but Monroe becomes power-drunk and merciless as well as obsessed with finding out how to turn the power back on.  Miles defects shortly before Monroe orders that Ben be found and killed, leaving his daughter Charlie (Tracy Spiradakos) and son Danny orphans.  Danny is thereafter kidnapped by Monroe’s men , including trusted soldier Major Tom Neville (Giancarlo Esposito, Once Upon a Time), in an effort to bait hostage Rachel into working on restoring power.  Charlie and family friend Aaron (Zak Orth), along with others, seek the help of Uncle Miles to rescue Danny; though initially successful, Miles and Charlie find out how intricately their family is involved in the worldwide blackout and must deal with the ramifications of the post-apocalyptic environment and the vast spectrum of human nature in a world where all must scrape by to survive, all while bands of rebels claiming to be American patriots fight the demagoguery of the territorial governments, (for a more detailed Synopsis, read here: http://www.aceshowbiz.com/tv/revolution/summary.html).

When: The series finale aired on May 21, 2014.

Where: The show spans the country formerly known as the United States in a fictitious future but started primarily on the East Coast in the Monroe Republic and in the Southeast in what is known in the show as the Georgia Federation.

Why: The executive producers and creators of this show are Eric Kripke (who created Supernatural) and J.J. Abrams (Lost, Fringe, Alias, Felicity).  That is an epic team of creativity, and I am a great fan of their previous (and some current) series.  In addition, Elizabeth Mitchell, who played Juliet Burke on Lost, and also appeared on V, is a featured member of the ensemble and is one of my favorite television actresses today.  In addition, the concept of the power going out all across the world, suddenly and without explanation – that doesn’t intrigue you?

How – as in How’s It Going? (THOUGHTS…at present)

I recapped Season 2 through mid-season previously.  You can read it here.

Revolution, man!  This viewer knew the writing was on the wall early in the second season for this eerie combination of science fiction and post-apocalyptic western.  The reason for – and ultimately the cause of – its untimely demise: the writers were flat out, straight up, no holds barred, unadulterated…chickens.  Perhaps, this a harsh assessment on this viewer’s part, but it’s also an honest one.  After all, they developed an engrossing arc that arose from the initial highly original conceit of the whole show and then, in a surprising turn, backpedaled, in a run-for-your-life-and-maybe-they-won’t-notice sort of way. Maybe they were surprised by receiving a second season renewal. It was a surprise to many, after all.

In many ways, Revolution reminds me of Firefly.  The creators, some of my absolute favorites, including Supernatural’s Eric Kripke and the almighty JJ Abrams, built a world as Joss Whedon once did, where science, the epitome of principles and reason and, well, law danced and battled with the moral ambiguity of living in an environment where no principles, reason, or real law exist.  And like Firefly, the story in Revolution failed to capture or, more rightly, to sustain an audience.  While in Firefly’s case, the premise was so odd and the world so specifically fantastic that finding a rabid fan base of the type that have found the show since its airing was undermined by a lack of faith in the show on the part of the Fox Network, Revolution had some confidence from its airing network, NBC, given its second season renewal and strong time slots with competition only from different genres, not from other network juggernauts.  What failed Revolution, its story, and its characters in the end were the show’s writers.  Allow me to elucidate; this entry will follow a format more of discussion and reflection than an actual recap of the back half of season 2 because really, in this viewer’s mode of thinking, the back half of season 2 was really more of the same.  There was no startling revelation, no character development, and no real place for any of these characters to go once the inevitable cancellation occurred and the series finale faded to black.  The writers created an awesome story foundation and, transparently in this reader’s opinion, became overwhelmed by all of the possibilities, overloading the story framework throughout a lethargic second season until Revolution blinked out of existence, like all of the electricity in its dystopian version of a powerless Earth.

Revolution started with a fascinating premise: what if the world lost all of its electricity, all of its power.  What if whole metropolises came to a stand still, what if governments were overthrown, what if people were forced to survive as they did in the Middle Ages? What would happen to our world?  And would it be worth getting it all back?

The show gave us a core group of characters, centered on a family.  This is a standard TV trope but an effective one: grab the viewer through the common, the routine, the sameness of all of us.  Except this family happened to be the nucleus of all of the dramatic tension of the story.  The mother and father, along with a family friend, caused all of this blackout nonsense.  Rachel Matheson (Elizabeth Mitchell), her now deceased husband Ben, and Aaron Pittman (Zak Orth), through his programming skills (read on) created what we now know to be nanotechnology, which effectively absorbed the world’s electricity.  Their involvement tempted the attention of the government, which funded their research as potential weaponry.  Of course, the temptation enticed both the government of the pre-blackout USA and that of the new city-states that arose in the wake of the loss of worldwide power.  One of those city-states, or the first of them, was overseen by Rachel’s brother-in-law, Miles Matheson (Billy Burke), and his best childhood friend Sebastian “Bass” Monroe (David Lyons), who conceived of something of a martial dictatorship to bring order to chaos.  When Miles lost interest in committing violence to keep the peace, he left what became known as the Monroe Republic, and Bass continued in his absence, assembling a fearful tyranny that left his residents watching over their shoulders.  Bass sought after Rachel in hopes of restoring the world’s electricity, coercing her cooperation, and causing her to abandon her family, including her eldest daughter Charlotte “Charlie” Matheson (Tracy Spiradakos), who doesn’t remember the world with electricity but is scarred by the fact hat her mother mysteriously left her in the world without it.

In season 1, there were quests.  First, there was the quest for Charlie and her brother, along with Aaron, to find her Uncle Miles and, maybe, her mother after her father was brutally attacked by Monroe Republic militia men and murdered.  She found Miles, and as it turns out, Charlie and Miles were more alike than not.  What’s more, as the series progresses, we find out that Miles and Rachel had something of an emotional affair, if not full scale adultery, when Rachel’s husband and Miles’ brother Ben was alive.  I kept expecting to learn that Charlie was really Miles’ daughter; this was neither discussed nor confirmed as a possibility, but it felt like the road was paved for such a revelation.

Anyway, once Charlie found Miles, and once they together found Rachel, by entering into the hostile Monroe Republic and taking her back, the quest morphed into finding the location where the power could be reinstated, somewhere deep within the Plains Nation.  Of course, life was complicated by power-hungry Monroe and by his equally power-hungry and scheming lieutenant, Tom Neville (Giancarlo Esposito), a hard man who grew harder for the love and protection of his ambitious wife Julia (Kim Raver) and their unassuming son Jason (JD Pardo).  Charlie encountered Jason, for example, as he served in the Monroe Republic army in the very first episode, followed by him as she began her search for her uncle, for whom Bass sought bounty and recapture, and they found they had some simpatico.  But Tom and Jason were cogs in a larger wheel, to the extent that the Nevilles and the Mathesons were part of that larger wheel at all.

At the end of the first season, Charlie’s father and brother were dead, Monroe and Bass were at odds, and Aaron was investigating blips of electricity that surfaced when mysterious keys were located, one of which he was tasked to carry by one of his former research colleagues.  Yet, Aaron and Rachel managed to fulfill their quest by reaching the “Tower” in the Plains Nation and by turning the power back on.  THEY MANAGED TO TURN THE POWER BACK ON.  A world without power for twenty or so years saw these two unlikely former scientists enduring great personal cost and tragedy to reverse a mistake they made by getting in league with a power-hungry government, and they turned the power back on. Boom.  All sorts of new possibilities and intriguing questions presented themselves in the final moments of the first season finale.  What would the world be like now?  And would the struggles of Sebastian Monroe or Tom Neville or Miles Matheson or anyone else connected to its blackout and aftermath register when the world began to use atrophied muscles?

The viewer will never know.  Because the writers are chickens.

This viewer would not believe for a second if any of the Revolution writers attempted to assert that this was the plan all along: turn the power back on, only to turn it right back off again.  You see, when the second season began, even though this motley crew of characters, some more engaging (like Miles) than others (like Charlie or Rachel), had battled much, loved and lost, and made some pretty important personal and global discoveries, such as the fact that the former USA government apparently still existed and deigned to regain power over the city-states that divided the country, the writers turned the power off, effectively turning off the victories and defeats from the quests to turn it on again in the first place.  Not only that, the act of attempting to rend the nanotechnology from the world’s power sources caused nuclear missile fail safes to activate. Certain republics, including the Monroe Republic, were bombed to the teeth, and the world returned to the post-apocalyptic status quo, without power or electricity to be found, like the Revolution world was when the series started.

So, our core group of characters, in various states of disrepair – Rachel particularly shell shocked at having inadvertently caused the missiles to fire – fled to the Plains Nation and the Republic of Texas, where Rachel’s father Gene (Stephen Collins) lived, to refocus and regroup.  After all, what could be more western than Texas?  Three story lines began to emerge initially, as the previously linked recap will show: first, was Tom’s attempt to save his conniving wife and his more morally centered son from the clutches of the apparently secretly reformed American government.  This led to all sorts of mischief, including Jason’s kidnapping by this nefarious government known as the “Patriots,” and his brainwashing into their youth-filled military, the members of which could be “activated” with post-hypnotic suggestion into becoming remorseless mercenaries, fighting for the tattered banner previously known as the United States flag. Tom’s wife, no less ambitious than her husband and since before the bombings, married the first guy that would keep her in finery and comfort, as she worked from the inside to find her husband and son (so she said), while Tom sought to rebuild the life he knew, only to discover that his wife and son had been taken from him, in a manner that made it seem as if they volunteered to leave him behind.  In this way, the audience was meant to have some sympathy for a typically unsympathetic character, more of an “anti-villain” than an “antihero;” after all, no one in this world has survived without making some mistakes, but most of Tom’s were more shocking and more severe and just – more – than others’.

The second story line centered on the Battle for Texas, a shorthand for what would become Miles’ Revolution, apparently the one referred to by the title of the show, against the so-called “Patriots.”  This involved several B-story threads, not the least of which concerned Bass’ shifty moral ambiguity, his own greed for power, and the search for his illegitimate son, who randomly appeared out of nowhere in the middle of the season, who Miles allegedly knew about all along as he hid the younger Monroe from his power-thirsty father, and who is apparently genetically hellbent on sustaining the family name after running a cartel of his own over the border in Mexico. Most of the episodes from one-third of the way through season two until the series finale were focused on Miles fighting the elements: the Patriots, Bass and his ambitions (and his unpredictable son) as well as Bass’ unhealthy attachment to Miles, Rachel and her stubbornness, Charlie and her headstrong, Uncle Miles-like ways. Notably, Charlie met cute or at least met lusty with Monroe Jr., making for an awkward morning-after with dear old dad.

The third story line focused on the nanotechnology.  Instead of giving us a world formerly without electricity that had been suddenly thrust into it again, the writers gave us a story about artificial intelligence, i.e. nanotechnology with the literal power to think, reason, observe, and learn, after being powered by power that used to exist for the use of humans.  Represented first by glowing green firefly-like clouds and then by the people the “nano” chose to possess, the science fiction half of our story preoccupied Aaron and his ex-wife Priscilla for most of the season.  The “nano” revived Aaron from death, viewing it as his father when Aaron created and executed the program to attempt to turn the power back on; killed his former girlfriend Cynthia and several people at which Aaron directed some pretty dark thoughts, such as Patriots threatening his friends and loved ones; and possessed Priscilla, as a means of controlling Aaron and preventing him from leaving.  Priscillia-Nano-Bot did all sorts of unspeakable things to experiment on humans and human behavior, even comparing them to and eventually treating them like rats.  In one horrific scene near the end of the series, a parade of nano-possessed humans were forced to exert rat-like behaviors after the nano learned how to control the rats first.

In short, the story lost focus.  Or, perhaps, what looked like lost focus was the design of the story-makers all along, but for the fact that the writers were uncertain during season one about the show’s future. So, in that first season, they threw everything they had at the story arc in order to entice people to watch, until, when possible longevity loomed, the writers pulled a “just kidding” or a “take back” and created these new threads instead.  What whiplash!  How did they expect for new viewers to find and stay interested in this show this way?  And what made the show’s producers think that viewers who had found the show on the basis of one premise – one set of quests – would remain loyal when most of the impact of those quests, journey and destination, was wiped out?

Revolution failed on its own merits, rather than as a result of ruthless network executives allowing soft ratings to be the sole criterion upon which to base a decision of further renewal.  The first and second seasons are almost wholly disconnected, separated and divided as they are by the act of the “psych” moment, when the power blipped on and then blipped off.  Hindsight is twenty/twenty, as they say, but what should have happened, from this viewer’s perspective, is that either the first season should have worked harder to establish how the power/nanotechnology and warring government factions (and former heads of government, Miles and Bass included) dovetailed as a story while veering away from turning the power back on, or both seasons should have been sandwiched together to form a cohesive whole, with less roaming and less sword-fighting skirmishes with Patriots and their loyalists.  If the power had to come back on to render the nano “alive,” it should have happened way back near the end of the first season.  So many episodes were focused on individual skirmishes without any real reveal or point beyond demonstrating to the viewer that the Patriots were “hiding something.”  It’s as if the writers had no idea where to take the story.  So much so that what the Patriots were hiding in the end, other than a desire to reconnect the former United States, was never fully flushed out.

Why couldn’t the whole idea of the emerging Patriots, and the truthfulness of whether they were actually part of the former American government or not, have been explored with the electricity back on?  Were guns too expensive?  Why couldn’t the viewers have watched as the nanotechnology interfered in the lives of our characters sooner, in a way that made sense?

The real measure of the show is to ask ourselves how far the characters have come and where were they going, if anywhere?  To me, the characters learned nothing, aspired to nothing, and did nothing.  Miles came the farthest, reaching for redemption as he was while not really believing he could achieve it, but constantly shortchanging that quest for redemption by trusting the untrustworthy Monroe.  In fact, so many characters wrestled with deep questions, given the fact that their actions created lasting impact on the landscape around them, but it never seemed as if the characters learned from their mistakes.  Simply put, they were constantly looking for the next fight.

I guess my real complaint can be summarized this way: what was Revolution really supposed to be about, in the end?  Was it supposed to be about a world without power, or is this one of those instances when “without power” contains a double meaning, as in without electricity as well as without political clout or power over people?  Or, was it supposed to be about “power struggles,” as in the “power struggles” of the Patriots versus the heads of the city-states, including the unseated Monroe, or of the nano, as it deigned to assume control of the Earth from the humans that created it.  This viewer watched through until the end because I wanted to see if the writers brought our characters any closer to a true purpose, or if the meandering plot lines coalesced to some sort of middle ground when the series reached its conclusion.  I’m not sure any of this happened.

It’s too bad, because the characters, in theory, were all fascinating, or mostly fascinating.  This viewer had no sustainable interest in Charlie and felt she was more or less useless by the end of the second season.  The most fascinating characters were Miles, Tom, and Monroe, all fight-to-the-death guys who approached those fights differently.  I enjoyed Billy Burke’s sarcastic delivery, and it was fun to see them fight with swords, though they tended to find guns more and more toward the end (and how did that happen?).  It was as if all of these characters danced around true moral ambiguity, where each had an anchor or foothold on the side of good while the other foot was firmly implanted on the side of bad choices.  For Miles, that anchor was love (Rachel) and redemption.  For Bass, that anchor was his friendship with Miles.  For Tom, that anchor was his family, most particularly his son, as his wife was so much like him.

In the end, one could argue that Revolution failed to deliver, but to deliver what?  What was the promise of this series?  I think its failure resides in the fact that it failed to craft a promise, a direction, a point to the story that enticed viewers to start watching or to stick with it once they were already watching.  The story had so much potential from the start, but shifting the direction of the story in such a dramatic way from season to season was bound to lose people. Unfortunately, this decision cost the show its future.  If the story had been developed better, in a less reactive way to the circumstances of the show and in a more reactive way to how the story had been told originally, Revolution had the potential to be the next Lost, provided the writers worked toward a payoff that didn’t enrage the loyal fan base. Now, Revolution joins the ranks of “too little, too late” in TV land and is enjoying a streaming afterlife in all of its two season glory, though neither season can be held up as glorious, individually or together.

Lingering Questions

1) Why did the nano really leave in the end?  And what purpose, if any, will they continue to play in the ongoing story of Revolution? 

Answer: The nano became one of the two antagonistic forces of the second season, apart from the Patriots.  They became an artificial intelligence that sought to understand and eventually to annihilate humans, via the tutelage of the character of Aaron.  At the end of the series, they had possessed his ex-wife Priscilla, but Rachel was able to introduce an electric shock that allowed Priscilla to recapture her own consciousness.  Where the nano went after that is unclear.

2) Will Charlie’s feelings of revenge re-materialize?  In some ways, she and Monroe are quite similar.  I also still maintain that there is an odd strain of sexual tension between these two characters.  Am I imagining it?

Answer: She gave up on her vengeance quest, probably because Monroe helped our ragtag group of rebels in many skirmishes against the Patriots.  The sexual tension between her and Monroe also disappeared when Monroe’s son Connor entered the picture.  Perhaps, transference happened.  Other things happened too.  By the end of the series, though, Charlie was forced to defend herself against an “activated” Jason during an assault on the Patriots, and this affected her deeply.  The implication here is that she loved Jason all along, even though they spent the entire second season apart.

3) Tom and Julia are both power-hungry little B-villains.  Will their aims and goals remain as parallel as they have in the past, and exactly what is Julia’s plan, and what is it exactly that they “have always wanted?”  Also, will Jason be along for this ride, and will it be voluntarily or involuntarily?

Answer: Well, I think Julia died and returned to 24.  If I understand and remember correctly, Julia was married to the Patriots’ President.  When Tom started to poke around their household, and Julia started to scheme with him old husband, her new husband had her captured and dragged off, the implication being that she would be potentially executed.  We didn’t see this execution; all I know is, Tom and Jason sought out Miles and Monroe to help him storm the Patriots, but then it got all confused because Jason’s brainwashing resulted in his death at the hands of Charlie, and then Tom was a broken man seeking revenge for his son’s death…you can see how this whole thing spiraled out of control near the end…

4) Will the power ever come back on?

Answer: It didn’t by the end of the series.  Sigh.

PARTING SHOTS

In the first half of the second season, this viewer felt that the tone and core mysteries of Revolution had gelled together, resulting in a show that had become better and better each week, delivering mysteries and entertainment in epic and grandiose style. This viewer had also hoped, however, that the show did not forget its original premise: worldwide blackout and post-apocalyptic survival.  The show, in the end, unfortunately, forgot that premise, at least the first half of it if not the most important aspects of the second half of it, and that’s why the show is no more.  Lessons to be learned from anyone attempting to create a show of this ilk in the future.  Story continuity is so important, particularly in the long-form storytelling format of television.

THE FUTURE OF THE SHOW:

Canceled!  The entire series, two seasons long, aired fully and ended in May 2014. Now that I’m finished with it, this viewer does not believe that this show can be watched and enjoyed on the strength of its only two seasons; the writers wrapped up some of the lingering stories, but the whole ending felt anticlimactic in the end.  The series is available on Netflix; this viewer cautions watching it at one’s own risk, for I believe that anyone chancing it would find themselves as disappointed as I was by the time they reach the final episode.  Nevertheless, RIP Revolution.  A good try…but not good enough in the end.

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One comment

  1. kyliekeelee · December 28, 2014

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