That’s the kind of cynical, kneejerk comment that gets Hollywood types mad at fickle fan commentators, I know. To unequivocally assume that a forthcoming show will suck would be grossly unfair, I know, but so many genre shows have promised the world and delivered sheer monotony over the last few years. Caution is not only warranted, it’s mandatory. Yet being a genre TV buff, I can’t help but be intrigued by each SF-ish new pilot that gets greenlit to series. What if it sneaks up on us just as Lost and Battlestar Galactica did?
The first to raise that question this year is Revolution, created by Supernatural‘s Eric Kripke and produced by serial show developer JJ Abrams with a pilot directed by Iron Man‘s Jon Favreau. It’s the first NBC drama to earn a series order, and the premise is timely and has potential: it’s set in a post-apocalyptic America where all energy has ceased to exist, which means no cars or any other form of technology. I assume that ‘energy’ is a lazy shorthand for a more specific phenomenon, because all energy disappearing would presumably cause the universe to end rather than just force middle-class people to wash their clothes by hand.
Regardless of semantics, this is the latest high-concept, genre-tinged drama from American network television. This means it’s likely the latest to misunderstand what makes a genre show successful: the characterisation and narrative have to be as engaging as the mythology, if not more. Shows like Flash Forward, V, The Event, Terra Nova, and more have all assumed that as long as they backed up a truckload of mystery and exposition and dumped it on your couch, then they could get away with walking plot devices instead of characters and dialogue that trades wit for infodumps. Each of these shows was agonising to watch because every element felt obligatory and weary, part of a factory product assembled in haste that’s functional but free of art or craft.
Despite its many detractors throughout its run and an ending that infuriated so many (including me), Lost is nonetheless rightly considered a benchmark in effective genre television. The pilot and first season worked primarily as a drama, with mystery and backstory gradually sprinkled in. The many shows that emulated its success got this backwards, frontloading the mystery and caring little for resonance. Take another look at the Lost pilot and you’ll see how unusual it is compared to those that came after: it has nuance. Moments like Locke smiling at Kate with the orange peel in front of his teeth, Jack telling Kate how he conquered his fear during a dangerous surgery, and Sayid revealing where he served in the military. Flash Forward didn’t bother with moments like these.
This misunderstanding has been the subject of many articles over the years. The Guardian had a particularly articulate one recently, so check it out for more. What it means for shows like Revolution is that there’s no end in sight. There has yet to be a genre show to rival Lost or Battlestar precisely because showrunners are unable or unwilling to tell their stories with elegance and patience. Ironically, Lost‘s pilot was written and filmed on an absurdly short schedule yet had more weight than shows developed and rewritten for far longer.
[To clarify, I view Game of Thrones as an anomaly because it’s one of the longest adaptations ever put to film rather than a product of network script development. And Fringe became such a show, but only after the rocky first half of season one when the show began to gradually reconceptualise itself.]
I would love for Revolution to turn the tide, but making such assumptions has become foolish. If it achieves any kind of artistry, it will be a shocking exception to an entrenched rule. Eric Kripke’s involvement doesn’t bode well for subtlety. Supernatural is a fun show when it’s not drowning in testosterone, but Kripke has never demonstrated in it that he understands subtext or the importance of characters exposing their vulnerability when it wasn’t just convenient for the plot. Plus, JJ Abrams has attached himself to some incredibly limp shows. I still can’t conceive how Person of Interest managed to turn a Jonathan Nolan script into something so dull. It was tempting fate with that title though.
But the cast of Revolution has some bright spots, with Breaking Bad‘s Giancarlo Esposito the standout, and I remember Billy Burke having a nice presence in the first Twilight film. See them in all their implausibly clean glory at EW.
If once again network TV lets us down this year with a tin-eared genre slate that squanders big budgets that could instead have serviced well-executed, innovative visions, then I’ll give up on it all over again before once again generating some renewed cautious optimism next year.
Ultimately, cable will be the best bet for genre television. The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones are so well crafted and more is clearly possible. I’m dying for HBO to tackle science fiction, perhaps even space opera. If they could bring viewers into fantasy with White Walkers and dwarves, they can surely drag them kicking and screaming into SF if the show is well-written and dynamic. HBO, please take some SF pitches: it’s a niche ripe for the taking.