These days it seems Americans like nothing better than grabbing a big bowl of popcorn and settling in for a little end-of-the-world fantasy. The action-packed but relentlessly bleak zombie series The Walking Dead is a big TV hit, and it has plenty of company on the big screen, too: The Road, The Hunger Games, I Am Legend, Contagion, The Book of Eli — you know the ones.
Now NBC is making its contribution to the genre, Revolution, which follows a band of gorgeous and impeccably rumpled survivors living 15 years after all electricity-powered devices mysteriously went dead. Last week’s premiere episode, helmed by J.J. Abrams and Jon Favreau, drew 11.6 million viewers, the most of any TV drama of the last three years. (The second episode is on tonight.)
It seems that we’re hungry for collapse — but why?
Maybe we’re living out our anxieties from the comfort of our living rooms, as many of these apocalyptic stories are centered on real threats to civilization, like nuclear war, climate change, or pandemics. In a post-9/11, post-Katrina, post-financial-collapse world, we’re pretty anxious. (It doesn’t help that government agencies have sunk money into military training and citizen preparedness for a zombie attack.)
Although Revolution focuses on a breakdown of the electrical grid — albeit in a way that seems highly improbable — it is essentially a familiar peak-oil scenario: Technology and governments crumble, and old-time skills (best case) and violent militias (worst case) rise to replace them.
As an armchair-psychologist-turned-TV-critic, I have to believe this trend is about more than just confronting fears, however. It’s a fantasy that satisfies a skewed yearning for a simpler life. Jobs, house payments, parking tickets, soccer practice, and all the other stuff that packs our lives can feel oppressive — made worse by the technological static around us. What if we just wiped the slate clean with a massive electrical-grid breakdown?
The opening of Revolution lays this sentiment bare, showing the main characters — the Matheson kids — as screen zombies moments before the crash. (Actual zombie movies, incidentally, tap into a different impulse: They appeal to our misanthropic side, as we tire of dealing with our fellow humans in maintaining a civilization. Wouldn’t it be easier — and more fun, like a video game — if we could just shoot our mindless, flesh-eating former neighbors in the head?)
Revolution, with its beautiful cast and charmingly deteriorated settings (ruin porn, anyone?), is the most potent example of the romantic appeal of collapse: For viewers numbed by overconsumption, the show presents an antidote in its austerity. Simple objects, like a Rubik’s cube or a postcard, have value again. And life after the crash is kind of like camping or living as a historical reenactor or urban homesteader. The characters dwell in a slightly worn-out suburban subdivision, raise chickens and sheep out front, go hunting with bitchin’ crossbows, and mix up herbal tinctures by candlelight to cure ailments or poison bandits.
There are many hackneyed elements to Revolution — like the stereotypical computer nerd who was once a bigwig at this “computer thing” called Google. “Now, it’s nothing,” he says.
And these shows never present the less-appealing aspects of this kind of living: You don’t see people pooping in holes, shoveling shit, or simply doing laundry, which was one of the most arduous jobs of the pre-industrial era. You don’t see people clear-cutting forests in their desperation for fuel. You don’t see the agony of childbirth or death by urinary tract infection.
There’s another allure to the collapse fantasy: that our day-to-day activities will have some real importance to our survival, because it doesn’t always feel that way now. Tim Kreider, in a recent commentary in The New York Times, said that we make our lives seem busy as “a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.”
Making shelter, growing a garden, and preserving food have that back-to-basics appeal — but for most of us, these skills are a lost art. I established a big garden in my yard some years ago, and many passersby look at it with curiosity, point to cabbage or carrots, and say, “That’s an odd plant — what is it?”
Americans have been deskilling for decades. Many of our hands-on jobs — like construction, plumbing, agriculture, car repair, and manufacturing — have either been exported or kicked down to “lower” classes and immigrant labor. Meatpacking, which is how my grandfather made a decent living decades ago, is among the lowliest of occupations today. But a meatpacker like him would be invaluable in the world of Revolution, since most Americans probably have no idea how to slaughter a chicken, never mind something bigger, like a pig or cow.
If the lights went out tomorrow, many of us would have no marketable skills.
Revolution, in its superficiality and romanticism, doesn’t get real about how people make do in that world, and it completely skims past the first 15 years of the blackout without giving much sense of how people adapted — which could have been the most interesting part of the saga. In doing so, the show’s creators passed up a big opportunity to send a message to America’s couch potatoes: Our society certainly rests on a bounty of natural resources, but a civilization’s real sustainability is as much about finding the resources in people.