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 inĀ 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