Monday, April 7, 2014

A casting revolution: NBC’s Revolution

by Germar Derron

A show, about what happens when the lights go out, is secretly the most enlightening show on television.  Clearly, Revolution is no Lost.  Still, pop culture stalwarts remain puzzled by Revolution’s moderate success.  We aren't puzzled because the show is terrible.  We’re puzzled because the show is as good as the other 37 good sci-fi shows that never made it beyond a few episodes.  Revolution trumps The Event, V, No Ordinary Family, Terra Nova, FlashForward, et al., because it’s not just entertainment; it matters.

The premise is simple.  The power goes out, everywhere, simultaneously.  Within hours, every major city becomes a battlefield.  Militias, carrying muskets and swords, form to protect new territories.  The ensemble cast straddles a blurred protagonist-antagonist line.  They consist of basically two factions: 1) a family, the Mathesons, that may be responsible for the worldwide blackout, and 2) a brutal militia, led by a former family friend, General Sebastian Monroe.

Revolution reflects all of who we are, without trying too hard. Characters never look into the camera and deliver superfluously dramatic soliloquies about peace, equality, or gender roles.  Revolution does what every HR diversity training video attempts to, and with humor and high stakes, and without screaming “MESSAGE.” I think Revolution succeeds because it feels right. It quenches an unknown thirst.

For all of Hollywood’s issues, Hollywood moves at a fairly progressive pace.  That faster pace drives the Revolution click-track.

Early in the series, we meet Jason Neville (J.D. Pardo).   He’s introduced because Charlie Matheson (Tracy Spiridakos)—the white-hot, hot white lead—needs a love interest.  But Jason works for General Monroe; 
Charlie wants to see Monroe dead.  The story mimics classic Shakespeare, before we learn that Jason is bi-racial.  His parents, played by Giancarlo Esposito and Kim Raver, are cunning, deadly, and the can’t-miss-scene of each week.   And that’s only the tip of the interracial iceberg. 

Aaron Pittman (Zak Orth) made millions as a Google geek. He looks just like that guy would – uncomfortable in his natural fat suit, and hairy.  His skin is the perfect shade of TV-nerd white. Aaron married the thin, striking Filipino, Priscilla (Maureen Sebastian). Fan favorite, Nora Clayton (Daniella Alonso), struggles to ignore past romps with Miles Matheson (Billy Burke). She’s very dark-skinned and South American-y; he’s almost Aaron-white.  Google interracial love; STOP!  Don’t go to that site! That’s a fetish.  This is Sam and Dianne, Peter and Lois, Harry and Sally – “normal” couples.  Even baby boomers get some interracial action.  Hermit-badass Dr. Jane Warren and her cancer-surviving partner Beth (Windows froze; currently rebooting).

Revolution succeeds at diversity, where others fail, because it’s not self-aware.  It’s like the writers never took "Minorities in Stories 101."  When we meet former captain Jim Hudson (Malik Yoba) and later Ken Dawson (Richard T. Jones), their flashbacks don’t include gang affiliation, professional sports, or rebellious young blondes.  Dawson grew up with Rachel Matheson (Elizabeth Mitchell), in a small town, as her friend, not her black friend.  To survive, in the new world, Jim joined the Monroe Militia, and worked with Miles to overthrow Monroe.  These characters exist for reasons other than being black, and not in spite of being black.  

These minorities, interracial relationships, and same-sex relationships merely exist in this world.  This is the beauty of Revolution.  Fans journey through a partially post-apocalyptic world, where everything is different, yet exactly the same, but somehow better.  Revolution does nothing to hide the beauty that is life.  It also doesn't shine a spotlight on it, or take a timeout to let you feel some type of way. 

The lead women look like women that raised me and loved me.  They feel whole and important, like Tony Soprano and Jack Shepard. In both seasons, Monroe, then Miles, announce that the war cannot be won without [some new character].  In both cases, [some new character] was a woman. And this isn't a Joan-of-Arc exception.  In Revolution-land, women are doctors, scientists, soldiers, demolitionists, and warriors.  Notwithstanding their muscles, brains, and weapons, they remain mothers, wives, and partners.  This is not Themyscira.  This is Atlanta, Philly, and Texas.  This is the way it could should be.

In a few dark corners of the internet, critics and academics acknowledge Revolution’s diverse cast and unique approach to minorities on TV.  A fan responded, “The show is too femenist! (sic) Women are not supposed to act like men!”  Executive producer J.J. Abrams, executive producer/director Jon Favreau, and show-runner Eric Kripke seem wholly unaware of what could be a giant leap in casting and storytelling. 

Abrams admits that age matters here.  Some characters must be old enough to vividly remember life with power.  Other characters are so young that power equates to magic or mythology.

In some cases, they cast based on talent, not predetermined types.  Tom Neville was an entirely different
character, before they realized Giancarlo Esposito was the perfect fit.  By casting talent, and not type, they may have stumbled into the most organically diverse cast in modern television. 

Revolution is color-blind, but not in the entirely ignorant way people pretend to be now.  When the power goes out, bank accounts, board positions, and academic degrees become obsolete.  Kids grow up without internet, MTV, or varsity sports.  Skin color ceases to be a marker of social status, sexual prowess, or athletic ability.  Everyone in Revolution-land is the same: a survivor, a potential threat, or a potential ally.  It’s equality in a world where equality is a possibility, and a necessity. It’s exactly like the real world, plus equality. 

This exact piece could have been written about other shows, like CW’s Arrow.  That’s a good thing. And no, these shows are not perfect.  The spotlights shine mostly on square-jawed rugged-handsome smart white men, who sleep with all of their skinny-hot co-stars.  But Rome wasn't built in Harlem right? (I’m terrible at euphemisms)

Yes, there’s an older, lesbian, interracial couple, and they shoot guns.

All photos courtesy Getty Images - Ethan Miller (right side); Frederick M. Brown (left side)
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