Sunday, May 13, 2007

Jericho Fit

I've been wanting to comment on the CBS series Jericho which premiered last fall, and finished its first season this past Wednesday. And for starters, the fact that I've watched all 22 episodes is a testament to the success of the new strategy of making them available over the internet. I saw the promos for the series and remember being intrigued, but there were a lot of interesting series premiering last fall, and Jericho didn't stand out from the crowd, and September is always a busy time, so I missed the first episode and figured, oh well, I'll just skip this show. And that would have been that in the old days of a year or two ago, with the possible alternative of catching it on reruns. But I started to watch the episodes online in November while I was away at a conference, and got hooked, got caught up, and here I am.

Jericho tells the story of the aftermath of a nuclear attack, a genre that has been around since the fifties. I confess to having a perverse love/hate relationship with such atomic scenarios ever since they ran the movie Fail-Safe (1964) on TV when I was a kid (circa 1967), and I made the mistake of watching it. That movie ended with the bomb being dropped on New York City, and they just showed that everything stopped, still images, then nothing! It scared the hell out of me, and I had nuclear nightmares for many years afterwards, and used to get shivers whenever I heard a plane go overhead (in the film, the bombs were still being dropped from planes, not rocketed on missiles)--I guess that might be consider a bit prescient, post-9/11. By the way, Stanley Kubrick's brilliant black comedy, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), was something of a parody of Fail-Safe, and ended with a cowboy-type airman riding a bomb down like a wild bull, after being dropped from a plane.

It wasn't until much later that it occurred to me that in Fail-Safe and a multitude of other apocalyptic narratives in a variety of media, it was always New York that was getting nuked or otherwise destroyed--that's New York, as in my home town. Pretty chilling to realize that you live at ground zero, again a speculative phrase that became a reality post-9/11. And looking out at the Manhattan skyline after 9/11, I couldn't help but be reminded of all of those scenarios, and wonder about the future. The popular series Heroes, which I'll write about in a future post, is the latest to depict the destruction of New York City in very vivid terms. As I mentioned in a previous post, Wild Palms 2007, I find it a bit of a relief when some other place gets the honor, like in the miniseries Wild Palms where it was Boca Raton of all places, or the movie The Sum of all Fears where it was Baltimore, or on the series 24 where there have been a few nuclear explosions and meltdowns, but all out west.

In Jericho, rumor has it that New York was not destroyed because the NYPD discovered the terrorists and bomb at the last minute, although central to the scenario of the show is the fact that nobody knows anything for certain because there are no reliable channels of communication, almost no broadcasting whatsoever. I assume that, post-9/11, it was thought to be insensitive to subject New York to another disaster, plus it also draws on the heroic image of our first responders that emerged in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.

Anyway, according to the Jericho wiki, the cities that are certain to have been nuked are Denver (whose mushroom cloud is seen in the distance in the first episode) and Atlanta (a phone message of the last moments of a character's parents serves as the evidence), and the cities that appear to have been nuked include Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and Seattle on the west coast: Houston, Dallas, Phoenix, and St. George/Cedar City in Utah; Chicago, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Boston, Hartford, CT, Baltimore, Washington, DC, Norfolk, VA, Charlotte, NC, and Miami (not Boca?); and Lawrence, Kansas!

It's interesting to see that the folks who are watching the series closely enough to gather this evidence have noticed some inconsistencies from episode to episode, and between the episodes and information found on the CBS website. Perhaps its unintentional, but the problems that the fans are experiencing in obtaining definitive information on what happened parallel the problems that the characters in the series have in finding out exactly what happened. The breakdown of reliable communications and the consequent isolation of the town of Jericho, Kansas, is a central element of the series. It's also interesting that Jericho is at the center of a controversy about payments and royalties for writers working on webisodes, and CBS canceled and removed a preliminary web series called Beyond Jericho, and replaced it by another set of webisodes called Countdown. The strategy of adding narrative elements online is becoming more commonplace, having been pioneered in relation to films such as The Matrix trilogy, and the Blair Witch Project and its sequel, and I would certainly support appropriate compensation for the online writers and producers.

Anyway, Jericho is part of the nuclear apocalypse genre, one of the most memorable being the 1959 film On the Beach, which starred Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire (in a non-dancing role!), and Anthony Perkins. Like others that would follow, On the Beach (which was the subject of an inferior TV-movie remake in 2000), depicted the slow death of humanity due to radioactive fall out. Of course, there was a whole slew of post-atomic adventure stories, where the survivors fought off mutants with a combination of futuristic, contemporary, and medieval technologies, not to mention the whole Mad Mel, oops, sorry, I mean Mad Max trilogy. But attempts at realistic depictions hit their stride with the No-Nukes movement of the early eighties, and include movies such as Testament (1983) and Threads (1984). One of the most original is Miracle Mile (1988), beginning as it does with a young man answering a pay phone, receiving a call to the wrong number warning that a nuclear war has started and that the missiles will hit in 70 minutes, and showing what a he and other people do up until the bombs hit.

On television, the big event was the TV miniseries The Day After in 1983, in which it was assumed that the east and west coasts were destroyed, along with the other major cities, and even Kansas was hit due to the missile silos located there. The story took place in the area of Lawrence, Kansas, and I can only imagine that the inclusion of Lawrence in Jericho is an homage to The Day After. Like most viewers, I found the miniseries very believable when it first aired, but having recently had the opportunity to see it again on the SciFi Channel, I was amazed at how hokey it looked. Either way, it was pretty depressing, the idea that the living would envy the dead and all that. Ah, well.

Because The Day After reflected a liberal political perspective, conservatives asked for equal time and were given Amerika, a 1987 miniseries in which the Soviets take over the US, depicting the horror of totalitarianism, but also providing an opportunity for some Americans to become rebels once more and fight for their freedom. While there was no nuclear armageddon in Amerika, it was very similar to Red Dawn, a conservative fantasy in which a sneak attack by the Communists leads to World War III, and a large part of the U.S. is occupied by the Soviets and the Cubans, forcing a group of high school football players to wage guerrilla war against the occupiers. More than anything, this film demonstrates the powerful desire that exists in our culture to re-enact our origins, to be the revolutionaries fighting the evil empire. Some sense of celebrating the creation and reenacting the defining moment exists in all religious and cultural traditions, the sense of what Mircea Eliade calls sacred time, but in the U.S. we've grown so distant from our revolutionary origins that it takes a more drastic scenario to set up the symbolic reenactment. Or we have to resort to a more distanced fantasy, such as the highly popular Star Wars trilogy where we identify with the rebels fighting the empire, and even Han Solo and some of the others dress in a way that's vaguely colonial. This helps to explain the let down accompanying the second trilogy, which is not about rebellion, but about the decline and fall of the republic, the antithesis of our creation story.

Jericho provides the same opportunity for us to relive our origin story, but there is no evil empire to fight. The enemy appears to be terrorists, but reflecting current events, there also is a threat from government officials with suspicious motives--three's a kind of Dick Cheney type that's way, way in the background of the story--and also from mercenaries called Ravenwood that I can't help but connect to Halliburton. This time around, we have met the enemy and he is us, to quote Walt Kelly's famous line from the comic strip Pogo, as threats also come from within Jericho itself, mostly due to selfishness, from outlaws outside of Jericho, and even from the neighboring town of New Bern, led by Sheriff Constantino (in name at least, somewhat foreign sounding, not to mention imperial, although the character is as middle America as the rest). There are a few precedents for this type of story, not many but a few, one being the vastly underrated 1997 Kevin Costner film, The Postman (an adaptation of the David Brin SF novel by the same name), which I think has some very interesting things to say about the imagined community of the American nation and believe it or not, the importance of the postal system, a point made by the great media theorist, the late James W. Carey.

Jericho is more like a story about the American pioneers, about homesteading and settlement. and defense against outlaws and savages. It's a post-nuclear western, Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie, but without the stability, with the addition of the mystery genre, the whodunnit relating to the greatest crime ever committed. And the threat level is much wider in scope, ranging from the reduced circumstances of the locals, to the contemporary level of various military elements, to the threat of further nuclear detonations.

But at its heart, it is a story about community. Jericho is the good community, a small town that's hard hit but better off than the surrounding area. That's where the biblical allusion comes in, Jericho as the walled city under assault by invaders. But it's an odd reversal, since in the book of Joshua, Jericho was conquered by the underdog Israelites come to claim the land promised by God. The fall of Jericho is a good thing, and a miracle that results from the blowing of the sacred ram's horns, the shofars. Joshua fit de battle of Jericho, and the walls came a tumblin' down, says the old Negro Spiritual. The obvious connection is not to the town of Jericho, but to the United States as a whole, which has always enjoyed the advantage of being far from the maddeningly crowded Europe, at a distance from the theaters of war, protected by two oceans, Fortress America. But the walls have come a tumblin' down, and what's more, it's looks like Humpty Dumpty was sitting on those walls, because the rumor is that there are several different presidents and regions claiming sole legitimacy in the aftermath.

But Jericho too is under assault from without and within, as I mentioned, and this presents us with the classic conflict of values that can be found time and time again in American popular culture, that of community vs. individualism. This conflict is paralleled by the conflict between equality vs. freedom, and democracy vs. capitalism. Of course, all of these values are, well, valued in American culture. The problem is that they are inherently contradictory, and while the contradictions can be ignored some of the time, they do come into conflict from time to time. Popular culture helps us to deal with the conflict by mediating between the oppositions (a function of myth, according to Claude Lévi-Strauss). Often in American culture, individualism, freedom, and capitalism is favored slightly over community, equality, and democracy, but ultimately balance must be maintained because excessive individualism, freedom, and capitalism tends to cross the line of morality and threaten to destroy the community.

As is often the case in the western genre, the community, in this case the town of Jericho, is the ideal that must be defended, that is in need of defense and clearly worth defending. Jericho is an egalitarian society, and although there are some status differences, things are pretty much leveled after the attacks, so for example the rich girl Skylar forms an alliance with the poor boy Dale (nice touch that the salt mine that her parents own turns out to be an extremely valuable commodity in the new economy that emerges, reminiscent of how salt was used as money to pay workers, a practice that is recorded in the book of Ezra, making for another biblical connection, albeit a later one, but is more famously associated with the payment made to Roman soldiers, which is why the word salary comes from the Latin root for salt, and even the word soldier may come from the same root). Equality is also demonstrated in the salt of the earth demeanor of the first family of Jericho, the Greens (it's not easy, but it is environmentally sound). Democracy is also upheld, to the extent that an election for mayor is held at the appointed time despite the circumstances (reminiscent of the presidential election held during the Civil War), and Johnston Green who is clearly the better man is defeated in his reelection bid by Gray Anderson. The will of the people, even when wrong, must be honored (shades of 2000 and 2004). In contrast, in the neighboring town of New Bern, Sheriff Constantino appears to have usurped mayoral powers.

So, Jericho essentially upholds the values of community, equality, and democracy, but in classic Western fashion, these values are shown to be insufficient in and of themselves, and the settlers incapable of adequately seeing to their own defense. While the forces that threaten the town represent excessive individualism, freedom, and capitalism, the heroes who come to the defense of the town use those very same qualities in defense of community, equality, and democracy (thereby mediating the opposition between the two). The main hero is Jake Green, the prodigal son returned just in time for the crisis, with enough military training and related experience to do what must be done where others are lost. The second hero, a rogue hero who at first is ambiguous as to whether he is a hero or a villain, is Robert Hawkins, an FBI agent with knowledge about the attacks, access to information and resources that go beyond the town, and training like Jake's that allow him to be an effective defender. In a smaller way, Dale use entrepreneurial energy and sometimes coercion in ways that ultimately serve the best interests of the town. And the criminal Jonah, while exceeding the boundary and threatening the community at times, rises to the defense of the town on more than one occasion, temporarily using his "bad methods" in the service of a good cause and saving them from destruction.

In its first season, the program has shown a good balance between elements of the classic western applied to the post-nuclear scenario in a way that reenacts the American Pioneer Myth. None of this is original, but the combination of elements is novel and entertaining. And the mystery is unfolding at a pace that is neither too fast nor too slow. There's a great deal to work with assuming the series continues, much left to be revealed, but the pieces of the puzzle are provided often enough to keep us coming back for more.

The season ends with a shocker that I would compare to the ending of the original Planet of the Apes film, where the hero discovers the half-buried Statue of Liberty. Without giving it away, I would describe it as being the equivalent to the American civil religion in which we worship our democracy and creed, as the Satanist use of the inverted cross or crucifix is to Christianity.

1 comment:

xabistuff said...

i personally love the show Jericho on CBS, i am very happy this show on air back again! help me keep Jericho stay on air by signing the petition on Youchoose. this is to let CBS know were always tuned in the show.. check it out and tell everybody YouChoose.