Jericho Part II: Conspiracy, Cult Television and Genre

As season one comes to an end, and Jericho and New Bern finally engage in battle, the conflict is disrupted by the arrival of external military ‘order’. But this army are not the cavalry. As season two starts, it becomes clear that this army is not the United States military but an army that represents a new nation, with a new flag, and a new version of history. Initially, the re-establishment of order looks like a good thing, but Jake and Robert soon start to see problems with this new nation state and start to amass evidence that it is not the re-establishment of the US, but rather represents the very forces that destroyed the US in the first place, forces in which independent defense contractors are central.

Tragically, season three never happened. Season two was only made after immense fan pressure and the makers had to fit the entire season into a seven episodes, which was all the channel would fund, a situation that makes everything a bit rushed. But its better than nothing. Also, the cult status of the show has meant that the narrative has continued in other media, with novels and comics developing the story.

Clearly, then, the show has developed a major cult following (in 2007, TV Guide placed it in 11th place in its list of the Top Cult Shows Ever!) , and this is for many different reasons. Obviously the fantastic cast is a factor, and the wonderful characters that they play. Also the show is done with a sense of authenticity (I am not talking about the realities of nuclear attack here) with a grim vision of a small community struggling in a hostile post-apocalyptic environment. It has also got real emotional resonance, without the treacly qualities of shows such as Falling Skies. Family is important here and the stories are emotional, but the families in this show also have their painful, difficult and complex problems, problems that a bit of ‘quality time’ or a ‘group hug’ won’t solve.

Genre is also interesting here. As has already been indicated, the show treads a careful line generically. It does not deny its generic roots, as is the case with so much ‘quality television these days. The Wire was fond of saying that failure would have resulted in the series becoming a cop show, when that was evidently what it was; even my beloved Deadwood kept claiming that it wasn’t Gunsmoke, in an attempt to disavow its status as a Western. But Jericho also resists the inverse tendency of being too clever and knowing about its generic roots.

Instead, it tells the story with seriousness and commitment. If it has been seen to have traces of the western, and if it also draws heavily on Biblical narratives, the justification for discussing it here in a blog on fantastic television is that it is also clearly associated with science fiction and horror though its post-apocalyptic setting. For example, it concerns a community trying to survive when the technological supports of its society wither or fail, a concern that it shares with films such as Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, and novels such as Earth Abides. The same can also be seen in cases such as The Day of the Triffids (the novel and television versions, if not the Howard Keel film version), or even Stephen King’s The Stand, both of which explicitly explore attempts to forge new social patterns in a post-apocalyptic world.

It is in this sense, then, that for all its association with the Western, Biblical Epic and even the Political Thriller, Jericho can also be seen as a contribution to science fiction and/or horror television. But whatever genre you may want to associate it with, this is a fine show that I would recommend in the strongest terms.

Jericho: An Apocalypse of Biblical Proportions

Jericho is one of those great shows that was cancelled at the end of its first season, for reasons unimaginable to those who has seen it. It concerns a small town in rural Kansas which is plunged into crisis when a series of nuclear explosions take out 23 major US cities and communication with the outside world go silent. Not only does this situation create uncertainly about what has happened but also it also places the community in a desperate struggle for survival.

The main character is Jake Green (played by Skeet Ulrich), who is the wayward son of one of the town’s key families, and has just returned home after several years away in unspecified military operations that seem to include action in the Gulf War. His return to town just in time for the crisis may be a coincidence that proves a bit hard to swallow, but it is the only problem of this kind in the show.

I have never really seen the point of Ulrich before, and have always considered him not only to be a bit too twitchy but generally rather boring. However, here, he really justifies his star status, and even makes you wonder why no one has ever found out how to use him effectively, either before or since. He completely transcends his teen-rebel role and emerges as a character of real substance.

But he is by no means the only impressive member of the cast. This is a show with a large number of characters almost all of whom are played by actors of real quality. Lennie James is fantastic as Robert Hawkins, the other newcomer in town, and a man who knows more than he is saying about the attacks that have obliterated the United States. He is a fascinating character who grows and grows as the series develops, and he quickly becomes Jake’s sidekick, although sidekick makes him sound secondary. It is probably best to call him Jake’s ally.

Gerald McRaney is great as dad, and the wonderful Pamela Reed is mom, plus there is also Sprague Grayden as another of Jake’s allies; D. B. Sweeney as a surprisingly menacing threat to the town; and the outstanding Esai Morales (in series two) as an honorable commanding officer, although an explanation of his role would give too much away at this stage.

As should be already clear, this series is an explicitly post-911 drama but the nuclear destruction is not the result of an ‘Islamic’ attack that demands a defensive/offensive response. On the contrary, Jericho may have been the city whose walls famously fell before the Israelites’ trumpets, but the show explicitly deals with the issue of aggression and defense – of borders, territories and ‘security systems’. Right from the start, Hawkins’ presence suggests that the attacks are internal rather than external and, by season two, Jake and Robert start to investigate the interests at stake in this attack. But I get ahead of myself.

Even in season one, as people begins to realize that the United States no longer exists and that the community is now on its own, the town finds itself prey to various different groups, the most menacing of which is a gang of mercenaries who have turned into bandits and are exploiting the chaos. These mercenaries also raise one of the key concerns of many left or liberal post-911 films and television series (and even less liberal shows such as 24), the rise of the new private or corporate ‘security services’. In the show, these mercenaries, led by D. B. Sweeney, were originally employed by the Government to support the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the aftermath of the attacks but, once the US state had effectively collapsed, they turn into the kind of parasitic bandits that are best exemplified by Eli Wallach’s outlaws in The Magnificent Seven.

Of course, this kind of narrative has lead many to claim that the show is much like a contemporary Western, with the destruction of the US transforming the environment into something akin to the Wild West. However, as the title Jericho suggests, the model for the series (or at least for season one) is less the Western than the Biblical epic. As season one progresses, the references to the ancient world proliferate, and the town’s community begins to look like a Biblical tribe as they battle to survive in a landscape that puts them in conflict with other tribes.

Consequently, the introduction of a nearby town, New Bern, sets the scene for a narrative that resembles the Biblical story of Lot’s encounter with Sodom and Gomorrah (without the sodomy), in which a struggle over resources leads into a tense trade agreement, which finally descends into open conflict.

Next Week: Jericho Part II: Conspiracy, Cult Television and Genre

Falling Skies – Paedophiles from Outer Space

Falling Skies is a SF-horror-family melodrama that is produced by Spielberg, which is supposed to be a positive recommendation but ends up being its greatest problem. The series concerns a world invaded by aliens in which a brave band of resistance fighters mount a spirited opposition to the enemy.

The hero is played by Noah Wyle, nice guy Carter from ER, who plays an ex-history professor, Tom Mason, who is second in command to Will Patton’s hard-bitten veteran, Captain Weaver. It is nice to see a positive representation of an arts and humanities academic these days, and the history professor bit is no accident: Mason’s main function seems to be to provide endless comparisons between the resistance to the aliens and the American Revolution, while also being the nice liberal family man. The result is often nauseatingly patriotic, particularly in a post-911 context.

However, the aliens are not really not British colonialists, nor ‘Islamic terrorists’, but rather paedophiles from outer space. It is not just that Wyle is a nice family man, who seems to spend as much time worrying about his kids as fighting the extra-terrestrial menace, but that the aliens are after our children. They slaughter the human adults but seem to have a  thing about the children. Instead of trying to wipe the child out, the aliens keep the kids alive in groups and spend huge amounts of time devising schemes to whisk the moppets away from their parents.

And once they have the little cherubs (these are Spielberg children), they penetrate them from behind – no, really! They have these things that most characters refer to as harnesses, which are attached to the children’s backs and control them. But they don’t look much like harnesses. Instead, they have tentacles that penetrate the flesh and fuse with the spinal cord.

Once penetrated by the harness, the kids are under the control of the aliens and even develop a bond with their abuser. At one level, this is identified as a kind of addiction, so that, if the harness is removed, the children go into shock and die, at least until a procedure is found to cure this problem. But even then some children still long to be back with the aliens and the feeling of ‘being loved’ that the aliens gave them, but that their parents seem to be incapable of providing. On the other hand, some children, such as Noah Wyle’s son, develop an extreme anger at their abusers, clearly suffering for a case of deep-seated guilt and self-disgust that manifests itself in a case of ‘protesting too much’.

Of course, most of this isn’t new. The parasite on the back is clearly a borrowing from stories that go back to Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, an alien invasion narrative that preceded Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Heinlein’s novel even has includes the victim’s sense of dependence upon its parasite; their suicidal responses to its removal; and even the traumatic guilt and self-disgust of some survivors.

But Heinlein’s aliens ride on the upper back, just below the neck and between the shoulder-blades, while the alien parasites in Falling Skies cover the entire length of the spine right down to … well, I will leave it to your imaginations. And Heinlein’s alien’s are slug-like creatures, while these aliens (while seeming to be biological-technological hybrids) look awfully like the insect creatures from Cronenberg’s film of the William Burroughs novel, The Naked Lunch, both of which have clear homosexual subtexts…

None the less, for all its neurotic concerns with children, and with paedophiles – let us just take a moment to remember that most victims of child abuse are victimized by close family members who profess to love and protect them and that ‘stranger danger’ is phenomenally rare – the series does have a lot going for it. Visually, it has a really gritty and realistic look that is quite at odd with the sugar-sweet sentiments elsewhere, and its also got a terrific cast. Noah Wyle is always a pleasure to watch, even if he is not terrifically well cast here, but Captain Weaver is played by Will Patton, who is a character actor that brings an air of gravitas to the proceedings, and (most of the time) even succeeds in undercutting the more annoying elements of the series. By season two, he does get to spend more time worrying about his own kids, but we also have a great appearance from one of my favorite television character actors, the truly wonderful, Terry O’Quinn. You know, John Locke, from Lost! God, I could write a whole entry on Terry O’Quinn, but as usual, he appears in a role that uses his rather odd ability to play characters that seems to be a nice, normal everymen but also suggest the menacing possibility of something dark and/or tyrannical underneath…. I will say no more. For now.

Season two also starts to complicate the aliens. It turns out that not all aliens are the same … surprisingly.

But the bad aliens still want our children …

I read somewhere that Falling Skies has been described as a cross between Jericho and V but I have to say that for all its gritty, end-of-the-world feel, this series is no Jericho. If you haven’t seen this tragically canceled series, do so immediately. And that is an order. It may not be strictly fantastic television – it carefully avoids any overt sf or horror trappings – but it is also a post-apocalypse epic, so I think I might do an entry on it. And there are no creepy aliens hanging around the playground in this one!

Next Week: Jericho: An Apocalypse of Biblical Proportions

The Walking Dead – the Clue is in the Title!

I have just finished watching the end of season three of The Walking Dead and I remain a little mystified. Its alright – quite diverting really – but it has had enormous viewing figures in the US given that it is shown on a premium channel, a situation which I simply can’t fathom. It’s not bad. As I say, it’s quite diverting, but it’s also strangely static. Certainly, there is action but it often lacks any sense of narrative drive.

In the first season, Rick wakes up in hospital to find the world has been over-run by zombies and he sets out to find his family. But this potential quest does not organize the show, so he finds them pretty sharpish. His family are with a group of survivors that are camped outside a major city and, for some reason, a lot season one seems to be spent going back and forth between the camp and the city. Stasis. The group then hit the road (although its not clear why) and find a high security lab, where the horrible truth is explained to them. And then, they head out the road again … and again, without much sense of a quest.

In season two, they hang around on a farm for a while.

In season three, they find a prison, move in and then have some disagreements with the neighbors over in Woodbury.

To be fair, I am still watching it, which is more than can be said for True Blood, but any discussion of the latter show will have to wait for another time.

Lots of people claim to love how dark and morally ambiguous The Walking Dead is. Who should we really fear – the zombies or other humans? But that is hardly shatteringly original – it is actually central to Night of the Living Dead. Also, the show is actually not that bleak. The lead characters are hugely sentimental, particularly about babies and young children (even if Rick’s son may be turning into a merciless killer – oh, yes, please!) Not that I mind sentiment, but the characters seem to spend a lot more time worrying about interpersonal relationships – has my wife run off with another man; whose child is she carrying; is the father of the child a psychotic killer? – than they do about the zombie apocalypse knocking at the door.

If you really want to see bleak, see Frank Darabont’s fantastic movie, The Mist, which the series resembles in many ways. (Darabont was the creator of The Walking Dead but was booted off the show sometime during season two.) However, The Mist is far darker and far more frightening and far more tightly constructed.

What I am trying to say, and struggling with, is that The Walking Dead is much more like a soap opera than a story about a zombie apocalypse – again, I have nothing against soap operas (and not in the sense that some of my best friends are soap operas) but the zombie terror often feels to be simply a minor inconvenience within the narrative, or a backdrop against which other issues dominate, or an occasional interruption to the proceedings.

Even the violent carnage, when it does arrive, feels very odd. It is properly violent, with blood and brain splatter aplenty, but somehow none of it feels very horrifying or shocking. Certainly, there are great moments: in one episode Andrea is tied up in a room, where a close friend is slowly dying and will therefore soon become a zombie and try to eat her, and this sequence is simultaneously horrifying and heart-rending. But most of the time, as Rick and others shoot, stab and slice their way through armies of zombies, or are turned into hamburger by hordes of the shambling undead, the gore seems to lack resonance.

None the less, it is great to see Gale Anne Hurd back to what she does best. I worship this woman, but she hasn’t done anything worthy of her in ages. This is the woman who co-wrote The Terminator, produced Aliens and not only produced The Abyss but was the inspiration for its fabulous heroine. James Cameron has, in my less than humble opinion, never done anything as good as when he was married to her. She was the one that kept his ambitions in check and gave his films a real sense of authenticity and (dare I say it) economy. Even The Abyss, a massively over-ambitious project, with an ending that tries hard but fails to work, looks like a model of restraint when compared to Cameron’s later work. Don’t get me wrong – I love Terminator 2: Judgement Day – but it is already loosing the raw, exploitation origins of his greatest work, or rather the work that he made in partnership with Gale Anne Hurd.

It is also fun to see Andrew Lincoln in the role of Rick. Really? The actor who played Egg in This Life as a tough American policeman? Really? Wasn’t Egg the wettest of a group of rather wet twenty-somethings. Even more strangely, he’s actually alright in the new role.

However, my favorite moment in the show is  towards the end of the third season, where Andrea decides to leave Woodbury and travel to the Prison, a journey that seems to take quite a time when people travel it by car. However, not only does the distance seem to shrink when Andrea does it on foot but she finally works out how to cope with the zombies, a discovery that no one before or since has thought of. She runs. Or rather she gently jogs, and the walking dead (as I said, the clue is in the title) can’t catch her. It is only when she stops to hide from some humans that are hunting for her that she is attacked by zombies. Unfortunately, she doesn’t seem to learn from her experience, or pass the news on to anyone else, so I guess that, by season four, most of the cast won’t have the benefit of this brilliant technique for staying alive.

Ah well, there are more pressing problems, like finding formula for the baby and making sure that you spend quality time with the kid, so that he doesn’t go around shooting the innocent and defenseless.

Next Week: Falling Skies: Paedophiles from Outer Space