An und für sich: the TV adaptation?

I don’t want to muscle in on jms’s and Craig’s territory by posting something about TV on a Thursday, but ABC’s new show Revolution does touch on a few themes which struck me as of interest to AUFS. The show is about a post-apocalyptic future in which electricity no longer works. This is a pretty neat idea, although it falls apart at the slightest scrutiny (if “electricity” doesn’t work, how come “nervous systems” still do?); unfortunately, the show does seem to be encouraging scrutiny of the premise by making the characters’ attempt to discover how the apocalypse happened an ongoing plot thread. High concept aside, Revolution isn’t really a “good” show; its post-apocalyptic hardships are pretty off-the-shelf, as are the characters (idealistic teenagers, surly dudes with a soft heart, etc), but there are a couple of interesting things about it. One is its presentation of cities as objects of nostalgia; the main character, who was a toddler when electricity stopped working, keeps an illicit collection of post-cards of the major American cities (I’m reminded of David Simon saying he made Treme in response to people who asked him why anyone would live in the city depicted in The Wire); indeed, on one level at least, the show presents an argument against the lo-fi localism which is something of a liberal consensus.

Aside from the desire for the urban and the portrayal of the idiocy of rural life which is its complement, there’s a bit about a woman who carries a (obviously totally useless) phone with her everywhere because, having been stranded in the US when electricity stopped working, the phone contains, inaccessible, the only pictures she has of her children, which I thought was a nice skewering of the idea that technology is always merely an alienating and excessive consumerism (admittedly, this story also fits perfectly with the probably equally common sentimentalizing of “social” technology).

The show also opposes political localism, in another plot strand that seems weirder the more you think about it: the America of the show is (predictably, for a post-apocalyptic narrative) divided up into various fiefdoms ruled by local militias; but there is also a kind of resistance movement which is attempting to re-establish the United States (which makes me think of the old joke about Irish protestants attempting to bomb themselves back into the British Empire). Of course, that the heroes of the show are fighting “for America” is the most obvious plot strand possible in a US TV show, except that insurgents struggling against an oppressive local government in favor of some larger form of organization isn’t actually something we see very much in current American pop or political culture; and while there is a lot that’s reactionary about the “sea to shining sea” mythology of the country, the show does at least hint at the argument, made by Corey Robin among others, that moving power away from the local level has been, at times, a real instrument of liberation in the US.

This is reinforced by a design choice made by the show, which does deviate from most post-apocalyptic cliches (which tend to go for a western or medieval look) in picking up quite a few design and costume elements from the Civil War era. Bits of this make sense (presumably most of the swords lying around in the US are from the Civil War?), but it is also a reminder of the historical precedent that ought to make us suspicious of appeals to local autonomy in the US. On the other hand, the Civil War as design element plays into a slightly creepy aestheticization of the Civil War; the problem with this is that as aesthetic objects the confederacy and the union are equivalent which can be appreciated without paying attention to the politics of the war, especially slavery (indeed the Confederacy, as it no longer exists, has the aesthetic advantage of novelty, which is how we end up with a popular band called “Lady Antebellum”).

The other thing about the show that’s relevant to AUFS’s interests is its treatment of the ethics of violence, which is surprisingly nuanced for network TV. There’s lots of violence on TV, but it tends to recede into the background, with a bunch of anonymous redshirts getting shot. Violence is only treated as an ethical issue when the main characters have to commit it, but here the ethical difficulty is usually neutralized in one of two ways. Sometimes a show takes a pacifist position, in which the character’s reluctance to commit violence is validated by the show producing a situation in which violence turns out to be unnecessary; this is usually accomplished by a more-or-less obvious deus ex machina. The alternative to this, which is usually less narratively clunky, is to absolve the character of responsibility for violence by displacing that responsibility elsewhere, particularly onto some kind of legal or quasi-legal system, a set of rules which determine, in place of the character’s decision, that their use of violence was correct. To its credit, Revolution has tended to resist both of these ways of avoiding responsibility, particularly in the case of the main character, whose naive pacifism has neither been endorsed by the show, nor taken as an opportunity to construct a narrative in which the necessity of violence pre-empts considerations of responsibility.

Also, the show is set in the Chicago area, so I eagerly await the episode about the effects of the apocalypse on CTA slow zones.

9 thoughts on “An und für sich: the TV adaptation?

  1. The art of TV writing has taken a hit in these parts, so your post is welcome. We DVRed the first few episodes only planning to watch it on the basis of (1) it being “an Eric Kripke show” (we still watch “Supernatural” even though he hasn’t been the showrunner for a couple of seasons) and (2) the promise of Mark Pellegrino/Lucifer. The co-executive production credit (and his directing the pilot) to Jon Favreau didn’t speak in the series’s favour. Eventually we caught up, mostly upon NBC announcing a full season pick-up because we didn’t want 22 unwatched episodes on the DVR–that’d mean horrors, like deleting the last season of “Strike Back” (something voyou should write on), which would be absolutely unacceptable for obvious reasons.

    That aside. The Civil War aesthetic is interesting and it takes it in a different direction than the post-bellum Civil War aesthetic of “Firefly”–spaceships notwithstanding, of course. Now, Eric Kripke isn’t known to be a subtle person and he sticks to type (AC/DC song in the first five minutes of the pilot), but I had hoped given the fifteen years in the future plot device that shit would be a lot worse: the main character you speak of, Charlie, despite having been something like five or six when the power went out, has a full set of veneers, a rapidly changing wardrobe (but her tough swordfighting uncle with a heart of gold does not), designer Katniss-boots, and a full face of make-up that changes with every scene. There seems to be so much make-up to go around that even her younger brother–the one in captivity–has man-blush on. And, in the context of what Tupac called “hard times,” there’s an obese former Google executive with a shiny new pair of glasses–given that they are living off of tomatoes, potatoes, corn and mutton, just how many sheep is Aaron eating a day? And who ground those lenses? It’s not like Spinoza is kicking around.

    Sure, there’s the “suspension of disbelief” and all. But, given, say, “The Walking Dead” (where at least they look dirty all the time and a shower is deemed to be luxury, especially if there is soap) and “Game of Thrones” (where people–aside from the main characters at least–look ugly and have bad teeth), I’m surprised they took such a plainly absurd approach to decorating and adorning the characters. This leads me to wonder if there isn’t an ideological fantasy at play such that the post-apocalyptic isn’t about what was lost, but about what can’t be left behind. Like lipstick.

    I hope that the introduction of the steam train opens the door to the weird. And why is it always twelve? Twelve disciples, twelve Cylons, twelve donuts. But I like the idea that “algebra teachers” caused the collapse of civilization. About time STEM got blamed for something.

  2. I wrote this show off immediately on the absurdity of the premise that “electricity” could “stop working.” I’ll give it another look.

  3. To add another AUFS element: the gun-toting bad guys are based in Philadelphia and everyone is making their way there. I heard there’ll be a character in Philly who is a former philosophy of religion professor who never got tenure or a mac in his office but doesn’t care anymore because the lights went out. He spends much of his free time–of which there is much–wondering if the power going out is, indeed, the arrival of the Future Christ and complaining about rampant musket violence.

  4. Craig, I thought about mentioning your tweets decrying their stylish outfits as another way in which the show resembles AUFS. You’re right that, although the show has a lot of people say how bad the post-apocalypse is, you can see an implicit desire for this suspiciously comfortable state of affairs. Probably this element of reassuring fantasy is part of any post-apocalyptic vision, or any one that’s likely to make it onto mainstream TV, anyway (The Walking Dead is much less cleaned-up, but it maybe involves a fantasy that a simply community is possible after the zombies destroy almost everything).

    Adam, Hill, I feel a bit bad about encouraging you to watch the show, because in a lot of ways it’s not very good; it’s possible the interesting bits will end up outweighing the cliched or clumsy bits, but they might well not.

  5. “Revolution” begins after Snake Plissken light his cigarette at the end of “Escape from L.A.” Well, that was kind of a joke. I’m not sure I quite understood what is said on violence, neither I know much about the american Civil War, but I’m very sure this sort of tv series are political in the way that points out Mark Fisher’s quote: “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”. I really enjoyed the post.

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