November 1, 2012

Some problems with NBC's TV show "Revolution"

There are some problems I have with the new NBC TV show "Revolution". I've listed my concerns and grouped them as follows:

  • Physics. The main premise of the show is that something causes all of the electricity in the world, and anything powered by electricity (e.g., cellphones), to cease functioning. We then see what the world has become in the fifteen years since this blackout -- much more agrarian, much less focused on entertainment, much more focused on survival. The electricity blackout remains unexplained five episodes into the show, but whatever explanation they can muster would have to account for the following: (1) It's very easy to generate electricity. The controlled use of electricity is simply the result of a magnetized piece of metal and a metal loop. (2) Whatever happened to cause the blackout didn't wipe out all the electricity in the world. Lightning is apparently still around because we heard a thunderstorm in one episode, and guess what causes thunder? Moreover, the blackout didn't seem to affect people, even though we would all die if the electrical activity within our bodies were to cease somehow.

  • Sociology. "Revolution" depicts a society where the major institutions of contemporary society dissolve in the wake of the blackout, but the institutions that rise in their place are less plausible than seeing all the electricity stop. The major institution that we see in the show is the Monroe Republic and its militia, which with one notable exception, appears to be predominantly (or perhaps exclusively) white, male, and English-speaking. Suspending my disbelief that electricity would somehow be stopped is one thing, but it's enormously presumptuous to think that if we see the collapse of the dominant power structure (pun very intended), those individuals and who were repressed by dominant communities wouldn't immediately fight back. A torrent of vendettas would be unleashed: Street organizations and prison communities comprised mostly of young black men would certainly strike back against the police and authorities who have stepped on their necks for a long time. Spanish-speaking Hispanic communities, who marched in unprecedented numbers when faced with the threat of deportation, would now gain the upper hand against the Anglos who all but owned them. Many in the 99% percent, whose advantage of numbers would finally matter and who were held back by state power has vanished, would attack anyone even reasonably affluent. The hunters would become the hunted, and after fifteen years of that, I find it incredulous to think that what would result would be a bunch of English-speaking white boys.

  • Geography: The blackout understandably also caused all modern transportation to grind to a halt. But at least you can at least walk everywhere. Heck, one character in the show who found herself in Seattle at the time of the blackout walked from Seattle all the way to Buffalo, then up and down the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S., then back north and west to Wisconsin and finally to the Chicago area. Indeed, the Monroe Republic, we see from a map of the future North America, extends across parts of eighteen U.S. states. But extending one's will across more than a reasonable without contemporary energy sources is enormously hard. As an example, I happen to live about 20 miles from where I work, which I can certainly walk, takes a commute by train of about 40 minutes. But at a reasonable walking rate of four miles per hour, the same trip would take me five hours to traverse. Plus, that assumes I'd be able to find or get sufficient food for the trip (harder if there's no electricity and edible food becomes more of a crapshoot), and I don't get injured, and it doesn't rain or snow, and I don't run into anyone that would want to kill me or rob me or attack me for sport, and on and on. When everyone is preoccupied with day to day survival, it'd be hard to impossible to convince or coerce others to build a continent-wide empire while trying to get enough to eat. The novel World Made By Hand by James Howard Kunstler depicts a future society in upstate New York after cheap energy running out. The novel has its flaws, particularly since the assumption that we may face peak oil soon may not hold, but the novel is probably correct in that future society will be much more intensely local and that travel will be far more difficult.

  • Biology: The advances in science and technology have helped humanity (or at least the more affluent portions of humanity) defend itself against many diseases. But in the wake of a blackout, that rug will be collectively pulled out from under us. Thus, the diseases we thought we had conquered in the past (except for smallpox and rinderpest, which have both been officially abolished) will be back with a vengeance. You'd figure that the characters in Revolution who would have survived renewed epidemics of measles or influenza would have their faces pockmarked with multiple scars, but no, they look reasonably good-looking; no scars or marks, nothing. Heck, most the men on the show don't even have stubble on their faces. But after fifteen years, most of the men on the show somehow remain clean-shaven, and the one major exception had a beard even before the blackout, which somehow remained well-groomed after all these years. If I go just four days without shaving, my face is a stubbly mess.

  • The University of Chicago Department of Computer Science: There's a scene in the where the Matherson family pay a brief visit to the University of Chicago Department of Computer Science; we know because there's a sign saying so hanging from a concrete campus overhang. Only thing is, the campus where they're at looks nothing at all like the University of Chicago, which is replete with gothic-style buildings and certainly doesn't have signs overhanging from buildings. This is super-nitpicky of me to mention, I'll admit, but this brief scene did hit me close to home since I hold a degree from that very department.

Anyway, in spite of all this commentary, you might be surprised by my assessment of the show. I really like it. The characterization of the show is impressive, and the building narrative with various plot intrigues and establishment of various little (and not so little) mysteries makes me want to watch more episodes. I look forward to watching each episode the show, I'm heartened the hear the show has earned minor-hit status and won an extension of its run from the network, and I encourage others to watch.