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Maureen Ryan

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Why 'Revolution' Is A Ratings Hit (And Why It Still Has A Problem)

Posted: 10/22/2012 3:38 pm

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It's a question I've seen bandied about the Internet regularly this fall: Why is "Revolution" a hit? Why this show?

Before I get to a few possible answers, I should say that I don't think the question is dumb. The last half-decade has seen dozens of high-concept TV shows fail, or half-fail for a season or two until they're put out of their misery. Ever since "Lost" was a hit, TV networks have been trying to replicate its weird DNA, but they have generally come up with a series of genetic experiments gone awry, not successful clones or upgrades. We're trained, by this point, to think that any broadcast network show that embraces genre elements is going to be more "Heroes" than Hurley.

"Revolution" has avoided this curse, and I have some ideas why it has helped NBC have its most successful fall since dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Over the past decade, I've seen almost every episode of every failed sci-fi/fantasy/high-concept show, and I have the "Terra Nova" velociraptor scars to prove it. Whatever you want to say about "Revolution's" flaws (and this earnest show has a few, plus one huge stumbling block), there's no doubt that it's successfully avoiding a number of traps and pitfalls in its quest to help NBC keep the lights on.

In my view, "Revolution" has succeeded because:

1. It kept the core concept simple. Four words: The power went out. That's all you need to know to watch any episode of the drama. There's a brief reminder about the power loss at the start of each episode, but the show wisely hasn't spent a ton of time on that aspect of the premise. Where are the scenes of scientists working in a secret lab on a formula that might use the orbit of the moon as power source? Where are the scenes of characters exchanging technobabble about surges and amps and solar energy? There aren't any. You can power down your brain when watching "Revolution," and that's not the end of the world if you're in search of an escapist hour with a big helping of crossbows.

Of course, the show hasn't completely avoided addressing its core mystery. It's not impossible for the electricity to come back under certain circumstances, we learned when a music player and phone briefly worked near a medallion one of the characters carries. But at this stage, the how and why of the outage hasn't been shoved to the foreground. As creator Eric Kripke told HuffPost TV, "Revolution" is a road-trip saga, not a story full of obscure hints and clues, a la "FlashForward" or "The Event." All you need to know is that 15 years ago, all power sources that use electricity stopped working. That's all. The end result is that it's far easier for viewers to jump in to "Revolution," and once they're there, the show doesn't toss out a lot of mumbo-jumbo or cryptic nonsense that might lose them.

One caveat (and this applies to the other points in this post): I'm not advocating that every genre-tinged show go with this approach or use the strategies here. It's all about execution, and if a show is able to establish a complex central premise and/or execute it in an admirably sophisticated way that doesn't get it canceled, that's great. But "Revolution" established in its pilot that it was going to be a streamlined show about a simple idea, and it has stuck to that plan. And to its credit, unlike the costly failure "Terra Nova," "Revolution" doesn't constantly back away from the idea it's quite possible for a radically changed society to bring out the worst in people.

2. Episodes are similar to each other. Perhaps the show will branch out more in future, but for now, there are only a few scenarios in each episode, and they don't stray far from the road-trip/rescue plot established in the pilot. The main storyline so far has seen Miles Matheson (Billy Burke), along with his niece Charlie (Tracy Spiridakos) and a few others, tracking Charlie's brother Danny (Graham Rogers), who was captured by militia leader Tom Neville (Giancarlo Esposito). Viewers don't have to wrap their heads around new characters every week, or wonder (as they might when watching "Last Resort") how the pieces are ultimately going to fit together. Viewers know how the pieces fit together because "Revolution" takes pains to show them that every week. As is the case with "The Walking Dead," "Revolution" takes the same or similar scenarios and plays them out multiple times. Familiarity and suspense, not ambitious structures and deep characterizations, are the goals, and that seems to have worked out well for both show so far.

(By the way, I'm not trying to say "Last Resort" isn't as good as "Revolution"; far from it. I liked the ABC show's pilot very much and there are aspects of the submarine/Marcus Chaplin storyline that have worked well in subsequent episodes. But overall, not all the threads are resonating for me, and I find "Resort" a little choppy and frantic at times as it travels among its far-flung locales. Having said that, the well cast "Resort" is more ambitious than "Revolution," so I'm very willing to cut it a break and see where it goes.)

3. Character motivations are easy to follow. We know what the bad guy, militia leader Sebastian Monroe (David Lyons), wants: Intel that Danny's family might be able to provide about how the power went out. (Danny's dead dad did secret work that may have given him insight into the blackout, and Monroe is questioning Danny's imprisoned mother for information related to that project.) We know what Miles and his band want: Danny. The simple plots and motivations make it easy to understand what's happening and why in any given episode.

There are flashbacks, but they don't make things murkier; as with the early days of "Lost," they sometimes provide additional information or explanatory character backstories. Of course, these flashbacks aren't remotely as memorable as what we saw on "Lost"; that show's first Locke-centric episode, "Walkabout," is one of the greatest TV episodes of all time. The "Revolution" episode in which we saw the prosaic past of Neville was not.

Still, in accounting for the show's success, I can't discount the explanation that knowing what the Big Bad wants and knowing why the plucky rebels want to defeat him are enjoyable factors for the audience. As Kripke noted, the show's not chock full o' ambiguity -- who the good guys and the bad guys are is perfectly clear. NBC's stated goal this year was to go big and broad, and that might not have worked when it came to "Animal Practice," but turning Monroe into a fairly standard-issue villain may be a good example of that approach working.

4. The show is a series of cliffhangers. During the episode in which Charlie narrowly avoided being shot by an arrow rigged to a door handle -- if anyone tried to rescue her from the room she was locked in, they'd have killed her -- a thought struck me: "Revolution" is an old-time "Perils of Pauline" action serial. It might not feature a heroine tied to the railroad tracks, but it has featured a bound heroine narrowly avoiding an arrow in the eye, and the next week, just for good measure, there actually were a series of train adventures.

If you ever saw the original Buck Rogers serials on late-night TV or if you watched "The Lone Ranger" growing up, you'll recognize the kind of entertainment "Revolution" harkens back to. Each episode has a series of cliffhangers, but there isn't a bunch of storytelling baggage that accompanies those adventures; there's just a new set of adventures the next week. That's not to say that the story doesn't progress -- it does, but it does so gradually, and if you just want to sit down and watch an hour of uncomplicated, suspense-filled action and complications, "Revolution" often supplies that.

5. It's uncynical and family friendly. The more I think about it, the show "Revolution" reminds me of most is "Once Upon a Time," which uses its genre trappings not to explore the outer limits of connection and identity (a la "Fringe"), but to reinforce reassuring ideas about the importance of family, cooperation and hope. Despite its goriness and grim moments, even "The Walking Dead" does this a fair amount. Given the state of the modern world, there may not be a huge audience -- on cable or broadcast networks -- for a show that posits the idea that in the future, things will be a lot worse. (That's just one reason that "Breaking Bad," which depicts the worst-case scenario for human nature, takes place on a non-descript, present-day suburban street -- that's one version of the present, but in the future, we secretly want to believe we evolve into better people, an idea the "Star Trek" franchise certainly got a lot of mileage out of).

If there had been a cable version of "Revolution," it likely would have focused on the immediate aftermath of the power outage. With its flashbacks, "Revolution" has dipped its toe into those waters occasionally, but it's far more interested in its present-day scenario, in which basically good people go up against more-or-less ruthless oppressors. I'm not saying that cable version of this premise shouldn't exist at some point; I'm just saying that I can watch with this version of the apocalypse with my 10-year-old son and not send him to bed with nightmares.

6. It's aspirational. No, really! As I said in my original review, for those of us addicted to various bits and pieces of technology, the electricity-free version of the future we see on the show represents a kind of freedom. There are a number of people these days who seek vacation spots without Wi-Fi on purpose (I'm one of them), and this is a way to visit that mythical fantasy world without leaving your couch.

7. It made Billy Burke, Elizabeth Mitchell and Giancarlo Esposito series regulars. I don't think anyone thinks "Revolution" is television's next great character-driven drama. The people on this show usually hew to established types (innocent ingenue, grizzled gunslinger, arrogant villain, etc.), but damned if Burke doesn't make Miles' hangdog Han Solo qualities enjoyable to watch. Similar, as Mitchell and Esposito have proven in past gigs, they can make mediocre material good and they can make good material far better than it almost has a right to be. In fact, the work of these actors is almost -- not quite -- enough to make me overlook "Revolution's" most enormous and annoying fault.

Holy mother of iPads, the acting by Spiridakos is awful, and her limitations as a performer have only grown more apparent every week. In the Oct. 8 episode, after Maggie grimly declared that she was bleeding out, the reaction on Charlie's face actually made me laugh out loud. That's how clumsy and unsubtle it was.

"Revolution" makes the assumption that so many shows make: If there aren't a lot of pretty young people on the show, no one under the age of 25 will watch. Whether or not that's true, let's assume for the sake of argument that that's the case. What I still don't understand is why so many young/teen characters have to be annoying, whiny, stupid and generally drag scenes and storylines down. There's been an unceasing parade of Stupid Teenager Plots on any number of shows for years now (remember "24's" Kim Bauer meeting the cougar?), and the relentlessly dull, clueless Charlie unfortunately fits right into that tradition.

Not only is the character basically uninteresting, the actress playing her is seriously outclassed in almost every scene she's in. The actors playing Danny and Tom's son Jason aren't much better (I call them "the Abercrombies"), but Charlie's centrality in the story makes her limitations that much more problematic. During the first season of "Supernatural," Kripke's previous show, he realized that there was an interesting family mythology that could be built around the lead characters, and he also discovered he had two lead actors who could play the hell out of that kind of material. I don't see that happening here.

If Spiridakos has any strengths as an actress (and that's not at all apparent), the show's writers haven't learned to write to them, and every week, despite "Revolution's" general efficiency and the skills of its other cast members, there's a clunky Charlie moment that makes me want to delete the show's Season Pass from my DVR. There's room on the television landscape for a genre show that isn't necessarily atmospheric or ambitious and that just wants to tell an efficient adventure story. It's just my luck that a successful show like that finally arrives on the network that most needs a hit, and I end up spending half of most episodes hoping its wide-eyed, whiny lead character -- Not-Katniss, as I call her -- will be eaten by a pack of cougars.

For now, I'll keep gritting my teeth and hoping for the best; at this point, I'd be fine with the show marginalizing Charlie and letting even slightly more interesting characters have her screen time. If no changes are forthcoming in this arena, maybe I'll just wait for "Falling Skies" to come back. That TNT show also had some grating, "But think of the children" young characters, but tough-minded writing helped turn things around in that post-apocalyptic scenario.

Let's hope "Revolution" can embrace a similarly revolutionary change.

"Revolution" airs on Mondays at 10 p.m. ET on NBC.

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