TV's 'Revolution' Reminds Why Networks Aren't Earning Emmy Drama Love

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by Aljean Harmetz
September 23, 2012 12:26 PM
15 Comments
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'Revolution'
When the lights – and all computers, telephones, car engines, and batteries – go off permanently and seemingly forever during the pilot of “Revolution,” the audience is left in the dark for only one or two minutes.  Then, 15 years later, sunlight shines on a rural village, its good guy leader is killed by one of the militias that roam a dystopian America, and a fascinating idea becomes trapped in a mixture of stereotyped characters and stereotyped plot.

The pretty teenage children of the dead man –the girl Charlie (Tracy Spiridakos) and the boy Danny (Graham Rogers) – come from central casting.  On Charlie’s journey to the ruined city of Chicago to find her uncle, Miles Matheson (Billy Burke), nothing happens that is unexpected, including the long fight in which Burke shows how good he is at killing people.

“Revolution” may become a commercial success for NBC which desperately needs a successful drama and is spending about $3 million an episode to get one.  Among “Revolution’s” executive producers is the golden J.J. Abrams who created “Lost,” which started network television’s surge into serialized drama.

The pilot of “Revolution” was seen by more people in the desirable 18-49 age range than the pilot of any drama since “V” in 2009.  Of course, “V” – aliens move among us -- barely managed a second season, and two other series with high concepts and huge audiences for the pilot – NBC’s “Bionic Woman” and Steven Spielberg’s “Terra Nova” --  people share the world with dinosaurs – died at the end of their first year.

Television is a huge electronic ocean, and there is swimming room for every viewer.  I myself am semi-addicted to a USA drama called “Suits” which will never be nominated for any award.  But none of the drama Emmy glory that will be doled out Sunday night and remember will accrue to CBS, NBC, ABC, or FOX.  Two of the nominees for best drama series, “Boardwalk Empire” and “Game of Thrones,” are made by HBO; two, “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” are made by AMC; “Downton Abbey” is PBS; and “Homeland” comes from Showtime.

Homeland

It has been years since I have watched more than the first episode of any network television drama, yet I have reveled in every episode of five of those six nominees.  (To my chagrin, I found myself unable to watch a show about a terminal lung cancer victim who becomes a drug dealer.)  The difference between these dramas and “Revolution” can be defined as characters versus characteristics (Danny has asthma attacks; Charlie is sullen and carries a crossbow, shades of Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games” who carried a longbow); and texture versus a smooth surface.

More than anything else, the cable shows and their characters surprise you.  In one episode of “Mad Men” last year, the womanizing Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is the only member of his group to refuse the pleasures of the classy whorehouse to which the agency partners have taken a client.  That understated decision says everything about Draper’s second marriage.  “Game of Thrones” with its dragons and vengeful spirits should certainly be less believable than “Revolution,” but it is so well imagined and so thickly textured that its medieval world seems real.  The morally ambiguous “Homeland” has as its protagonist an obsessive manic-depressive brilliantly played by Claire Danes who is made more believable by the restraint of marine sergeant Damian Lewis as a former prisoner of war who may now be a terrorist. 

The networks, who still have a sure touch with comedy series, might want to start looking over their shoulders.  Three of the six Emmy nominees for Best Comedy Series this year come from HBO – “Girls.” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and “Veep.”

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15 Comments

  • Aljean Harmetz | September 27, 2012 1:19 PMReply

    I got dinged -- rightfully -- for my aside on "Breaking Bad." But I'm not sure if you understood that I was criticizing myself, not the show, which my husband watched avidly for two seasons. And, on "Revolution" the second episode of which I have now seen, I side with Gregory in thinking that how people coped in the early years of losing electronic civilization would have made for much more interesting television.

  • AE | September 24, 2012 2:41 PMReply

    I'd go one further and say these cable shows are more complex and intelligent than current commercial cinema as well.

  • CR | September 24, 2012 2:24 PMReply

    Cable allows a series to take its time and grow on you; even Breaking Bad and Mad Men had a slow burn at the beginning. Aside from the occasional Good Wife, network is confined by commercial intervals and content constraints - shows like Scandal, which could be a scathing, dirty, realistic expose' come off like melodrama.

    As programs become available on multiple platforms and Netflix and other emerge with original programming, it will be intersting to see how long networks and their old-fashioned storytelling styles can stay afloat...

  • cody | September 24, 2012 3:28 AMReply

    Henry said it

  • Corey | September 23, 2012 6:48 PMReply

    Does it have to be a case of cable dramas versus network dramas? I don't mean to be all kumbaya here, but there is definitely worth in both sides. On the cable side, you get great characters and a short but sweet season length, and on the network side you get guilty pleasures with the occasional great character and often good plot twists. I do usually side with cable shows as being the best shows on TV (mine currently are Homeland and Downton), but at the same time I watch MORE network shows (best currently is Good Wife), and they're usually just as fulfilling since they're on for most of the year when you have to wait most of the year for the best cable dramas to return. It's just an issue of quality versus quantity, and I could really use a bit of both.

  • Corey | September 24, 2012 11:44 AM

    You're probably right, I have never watched it on PBS, only iTV in the UK, but that is also a network station. Another reason why network shows are not so bad, although anything from the UK has a bit more quality, in my opinion, such as Sherlock and Luther. If we were discussing US vs UK shows in terms of which is best, I might not be so much on the fence.

  • MJS | September 23, 2012 8:19 PM

    Weird how everyone counts Downton as a cable show even though it's on PBS which is a broadcast network (of sorts).

  • Gregory | September 23, 2012 6:16 PMReply

    I agree with the preview of "Revolution." It reminds me so much of "Hunger Games" and I suspect Abrams and NBC are trying to mold it in that blockbuster's image. Why cut to 15 years in the future? I would think the 15-year interval between loss of power and the rebirth of civilization would be inherently more interesting. Maybe Abrams didn't want to make it look like "The Walking Dead," but just showing people trying to survive the loss of power and find safety and security sounds much better and more intriguing.

    That said, I think ABC might have a winner with "Last Resort." It looks smart and boasts the acting talents of Andre Braugher ("Homicide: Life on the Streets," "Glory"), who is surely as good as Bryan Cranston or Damien Lewis.

  • Matt (not the same one) | September 23, 2012 5:50 PMReply

    YOU are what is really wrong with television. You've been brainwashed into believing that the best shows have to come from cable. What possible logic is there to that? You get far less episodes, so you don't know the characters as well or get to see storylines played out as completely. You get swearing. Blah. You get boobs. Blah. That's really it. There are good dramas on cable, but they aren't any better than the ones the networks have. None of the shows nominated are half as good as LOST was on it's worst day and none of them are generally any better than network offerrings like The Good Wife, Person of Interest, House, etc.. And there is definitely no fear of the cable takeover of comedies. Girls and Veep are not only two of the LEAST funny shows to ever be on television, they are basically just totally unwatchable - and I gave them both way more than one episode to try (and regretted every second of it).

  • JC | September 23, 2012 5:35 PMReply

    So you are comparing Revolution, a show for which you've seen one episode, with Mad Men, a show for which you have (presumably) seen 65 episodes. Yeah, that makes sense.

    Also, you write for an entertainment site, therefore you must learn how to spell the name Katniss Everdeen correctly.

    And Walter White is not a drug dealer, he is a drug manufacturer. If you actually watched Breaking Bad then you would understand the difference.

  • Julian. S | September 23, 2012 4:19 PMReply

    I agree with Henry. I'm reading the article and then come to the section about not being able to watch Breaking Bad? Holy crap! I'm sorry, but the rest of the article isn't worth reading. You can't go on about how great tv shows on cable are compared to network, then proceed to gush over all the best drama nominees and then, oh by the way, I've can't watch Breaking Bad?? Give me a break.

  • ML | September 23, 2012 3:41 PMReply

    After the way LOST ended I vowed never to watch any other serialized dramas on network TV, ESPECIALLY if Abrams produced it.
    To be fair, Abrams wasn't responsible for the way LOST crashed and burned in its last season, but someone needed to keep a grip on the writers. I suspect I'm one of thousands or more who feel the same way. We just won't invest again in a series this way.
    That's the real legacy of LOST...

  • MATT | September 23, 2012 3:26 PMReply

    Funny that the only show on that list of six the author listed is the best show out of the bunch.

  • Telly | September 23, 2012 3:40 PM

    Matt, that's how awards shows work: only one show on that list of six nominees listed is the best show out of the bunch.

  • Henry | September 23, 2012 2:51 PMReply

    If you cant watch Breaking Bad....let me tell you, you are missing the best show on tv right now....and one of the best dramas ever....i wouldnt like to be you...

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