Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The End of Everything Ain't What It Used To Be

Tracy Spiridakos and Billy Burke anchor
the ensemble on NBC's Revolution
In the fourth episode of NBC’s well-meaning apocalyptic drama Revolution, after listening to a bandit whine about the looters who took the medicine that could have saved his daughter, series lead Charlie Matheson (Tracy Spiridakos) says breathily: “I’m so sorry. I am. But people just aren’t like that anymore.”

“They’ve always been like that,” he growls back, staring through brows heavy and grey with years of loss.

Bonhoeffer noted, decades ago, that humans cannot comprehend true beginnings, because we seek what came before. Creation ex nihilo evades our limited thinking. The same applies to ends. Science fiction has long traded on post-apocalyptic scenarios, because we always believe that something must come next. But our expectations about that succession have grown distinctly more bleak in recent years.

Though set fifteen years after a yet-unexplained catastrophe caused electricity to fail worldwide, apparently taking hydrocarbons with it, Revolution depicts a world in which anarchy reigns. Feral dogs and roving rapist wolfpacks make overland travel a fatal proposition, and the ad hoc government is little better than a well-armed street gang. Charlie’s exchange with her bandit could serve as a thesis for the show.

This makes a radical change from past apocalypses. Movies like The Terminator and books like Stephen King’s The Stand may not showcase the best in human nature, but they show people organizing some form of civil order. Revolution, by contrast, indicates that only our glossy technology stands between humankind and our base impulses. Light bulbs and TV, not the social contract, keep us from killing each other, implies creator Eric Kripke.

The ensemble pose, evidently
mandatory in TV promo packages
In the pilot episode, the heroine and her family live in a circle of houses apparently built around a small cul-de-sac. Inside is so safe that children run and play in the former traffic circle, but outside, soldiers and bandits rove freely. Charlie’s father and his common-law wife repeatedly lecture her on why the world is dangerous and offers nothing she could want. It’s the suburban white parental terror come true: if you wander off our street, somebody will kill you.

Therein lies the problem: though Earth has suffered changes that should transform civilization, Kripke offers only a caricature of today’s world. And not even today’s world, but what comfy white Americans stereotypically think of as today’s world. From a bucolic nucleus of rural truck patches, the characters venture into cities that are not meccas of opportunity, but decaying cesspits. Nothing shields the clean, Caucasian countryside from the cities but miles of trackless waste.

In this world, everybody you meet has your harm in mind. Parents have always cautioned children about strangers, but kids learn that most people behave honorably if given the chance. Here, though, your mama’s worst warnings prove true: literally everyone Charlie meets when venturing away from home wants to kill, rape, or rob her. Only well-placed violence keeps her alive.

Freud, in Civilization and Its Discontents, asserted that humans must learn, from parents, states, churches, and others, not to indulge our desires for domination through violence and sex. This thesis is roundly rejected by current psychologists, yet remains influential in pop culture. This series takes that further, implying that nobody is teaching our kids to restrain themselves. Take away our electronic distractions, and our animal sides will run wild.

One of the show's trademark landscapes. Squint closely
for a glimpse of creator Eric Kripke's fleeting optimism.
Beneath this bleak present, the characters keep glancing over their shoulders at the past. An enigmatic artifact evidently restores electricity (from where? Don’t overthink things), and the monomaniacal general running the East Coast strives to turn the power back on. A band of rebels wants to “bring back the United States.” These characters seek solace, not from what they can build, but from rebuilding what others already tore down.

This longing for the status quo ante reflects a certain brand of American conservatism. Not the principled conservatism of George Will and Bill Buckley, but the reactionary reflexivity of believing that things used to be good, and now they’re not. By excoriating the decadence of the present, and lionizing the idealized past, Kripke showcases a vision of America that says only: we used to be better than we are.

In the 1990s, The X-Files taught that two zealots could “fight the future.” In Revolution, it’s too late. The Disaster is already upon us. The transition is much broader than two titles (witness the gulf between Terminator 2 and Terminator 3), and it’s risky to attach cause and effect, but differing apocalypses in different decades speak to wild, rapid changes in Americans’ view of ourselves and our prospects.

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