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.

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Made-for-Television Horror Films

The made-for-television horror film is an odd object. It gets a fairly dismissive treatment in Greg Waller’s essay on the subject (in his collection American Horrors) where he claims that it is preoccupied with the ‘child-less, married woman, twenty to twenty-five years old, who is before all else identified as a wife’ or the figure of the ‘psychic investigator’. Of course, the latter type is a rather strange one to take issue with as it includes examples like the rather wonderful exploits of figures such as Carl Kolchak, the protagonist of Matheson’s truly wonderful made-for-television horror film, The Night Stalker, which most people agree to be a classic (and not just a classic of television horror but of horror more generally)!

The former type is also interesting but in a different way; and is based on an explicit preference for stories that do not ‘overwhelmingly adopt a narrative form based on the personal adventures of an individual protagonist or small group’ and in which ‘the horror is [not] localized, identified as a single incident’. However, this preference is also a gendered response. In other words, this response relies on an established options between the public and the private, in which the public is seen as ‘properly social and political’ while the private is ‘relegated to the realms of “escape”‘, the realms of the ‘localized’ and the ‘individual’. However, as Angela Partington claims, such a distinction is ‘a consequence of the critic’s class and gender-specific notions of’ politics, a notion that is quite at odds, for example, with ‘experience of working-class women’ for whom the social and political are experienced as precisely ‘private and emotional’ and vice versa: the ‘private and emotional’ are therefore deeply social and political.

Furthermore, such a position seems to oddly reject precisely those kinds of narratives that one might see as heirs to a long tradition of female Gothics. Consequently, if Waller is right about its prominence within made-for-television horror film, this category would benefit from a lot more discussion, and I hope to return to this in later entries. However, I am not at all convinced that made-for-television horror films are dominated by such types and, even if they are, there are still a wide range of other types.

The Night Stalker and its sequel, The Night Strangler, were examples of the psychic investigator, as was The Possessed, a rather weird made for television horror film in which James Farentino plays a mysterious figure who wanders the earth confronting evil and finds himself battling dark forces in a girl’s school. However, there was also a series of classic horror adaptations produced by Dan Curtis. In The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Dracula (again written by Matheson) the terrifically tragic Jack Palance starred as the respective monsters, while The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Turn of the Screw were built around other actors.

It should also be remembered that Stephen Spielberg started off in television and that his first film, Duel, was a made-for-television horror film (yet again written by Matheson) that was only given a theatrical release after its reception on television. The film tells the story of an ordinary man who, while traveling across country in his car, is menaced by a mysterious truck.

In short, there is a rich and diverse body of work within the made-for-television horror film. Some examples, such as The Possessed, are preposterous but fun. Others such as Duel or The Night Stalker are acknowledged as classics. And yet others, if Waller is right, represent a prolific, if largely forgotten, body of female Gothics.

Of course, the made-for-television horror film is very different from the made-for-television mini-series which I will discuss on another occasion but is another rich tradition that includes examples such as The Dark Secret of Harvest Home and numerous adaptions of Stephen King novels including Salem’s Lot (twice), It, The Tommyknockers, The Stand and The Shining. But that is for another day.