“Somebody Blew up America”

Episodes 1-4: “Pilot,” “Fallout,” “Four Horsemen,” “Walls of Jericho’

There’s an old Dagestani proverb that goes something like this: “When the house is on fire, don’t go fishing.” The writers of Jericho need to be reminded that the house is on fire.

It’s not that Jericho is all bad. It’s just that the first four episodes are punctuated with the most inane and distracting conflicts. Episode 1: Will the town be able to protect itself from fallout if it takes shelter in a salt mine? oppenheimer.pngEpisode 2: Will the disguised, and lip-licking convicts (whose crimes we have no clue of) rape Emily, the damsel in distress? Episode 3: Will poor little Ashley make it out of the burning library? These scenarios wouldn’t be so bad if they weren’t resolved within a minute after the commercial break. (The way the commercial break structures a one-hour dramatic narrative really needs to be re-considered). And while the dramatic tension in Jericho is squandered on these false conflicts, our attention is diverted from what seems to be the somewhat more compelling, existential crisis the town faces – you know, the fact that someone blew up the fucking country.

The writers of Jericho certainly capitalize on national anxieties surrounding post-9/11 America, but in a way that seems more enmeshed in nostalgia for the doomed old days of the 1950s than the doomed days of the aughts. Instead of any real allusion to the “War on Terror,” we find Cold War images and archaic modes of understanding what seems to be the inevitable end of civilization as we know it: the iconic mushroom cloud blooming in the desert, a fallout shelter (untouched since 1957), texts on atomic energy, nuclear families, etc. But beneath the Cold War aesthetics of Jericho’s apocalypse, the show presents an even more interesting political subtext – do small societies untethered to the State have the capacity for democratic self-governance or will they simply explode into a chaotic free-for-all where townies fight for land, gasoline, and the town’s last bag of Tostitos? Unfortunately, this question isn’t pursued with any real seriousness yet, as most of the town defers uncritically to the paternalism of Mayor Green and his two sons, Eric (the Deputy Mayor and interim Sheriff) and Jake (the mysterious, heroic drifter). But the democratic question is at the center of the series and it remains to be seen, what sort of society will Jericho evolve into.

Of note, co-creator Stephen Chbosky explains that he witnessed two events in recent history that deeply informed his approach to Jericho: the attack on the World Trade Center and the 1992 L.A. rebellions. The former comparison is predictable, but L.A.?

When you think of the L.A. riots, you think of the racist verdict of the Rodney King case, which catalyzed an explosion of the city’s racial tensions in the form of an unorganized revolt. Aside from Hawkins, his family, and the obedient gas station attendant, however, Jericho is lily-white. So, Chbosky’s allusion to L.A. is less about any examination of the contradictions in American democracy along lines of race, than it is about modern society in times of uprooted institutions of law and order. In fact, most of the major characters serve disciplinary or managerial roles in society (Mayor Johnston Green, Deputy Mayor Eric Green, future Mayor and salt mine manager Gray Anderson). Jericho’s major focus then is on how leaders can keep the town from destroying itself, rather than examining the town’s capacity to transcend and transform older modes of social organization when the usual apparatus isn’t available. At least through episode four, the writers seem to have missed out on this key possibility in the story, smoothing over the contradictions in society rather than allowing them to create interesting fissures from which new social relations can come into being. Clearly there is a class divide in Jericho – who actually goes down those mining shafts to work? – but the writers are too busy creating new five-minute disasters to pay it any notice.

– Thumbu Sammy


On Heroes and Hiatuses

An audible “WTF” escaped me last month, when Heroes announced it was taking another mid-season, six week hiatus. At the time the wait seemed unbearably long – would I still remember who was trying to kill whom, six weeks down the line? – but now, on the eve of the show’s return, I can say that I’ve weathered Heroes’ absence stoically, steering well clear, for instance, of the quick, dirty fixes afforded by fan fiction and Photoshopped Claire porn.

(Ahem: Heroes fan fiction. Wow.)

Of course I’m excited for the return of everyone’s favorite self-consciously multi-ethnic group of heroes, but in all frankness I have to admit that these hiatuses aren’t so bad. At the very least, I’ve had six Monday nights free during which I’ve, y’know, filed my taxes, signed up for a Pilates class, and finally gotten around to reading The Da Vinci code. (It should go without saying that I was unseduced by NBC’s necessarily watered-down tales of the black Irish – even Ryan O’Riley was basically a nancy boy, and he was in a maximum security prison on a premium cable channel!)

There are some pretty straightforward reasons why networks regularly put some of their top shows on hold for six weeks or more at a time: production schedules, programming, re-writes. And taking a mid-season recess is so widespread that not having any hiatus (24‘s “non-stop” season!) becomes a selling-point. But whereas a show like 24 really depends on regular, compulsive viewing to achieve its ever-diminishing adrenaline returns, I’m increasingly convinced that audiences for shows like Heroes or Lost or (in some sense) The Sopranos actually stand to benefit from taking some time off in the middle of a season. These hiatuses are more productive than we conventionally believe, since our investment in these kinds of shows hinges at least as much on a kind of direct relationship to their characters as it does on the actual narrative developments that take place. (A quick aside: I couldn’t be more bored by Heroes v. Lost comparisons that celebrate the former for its consistent narrative payoffs. I would be far more patient with Lost‘s slow reveal if I actually gave two shits about anyone on the island. The Others are far more interesting to me than any of the remaining survivors. Jack, Kate, and Sawyer should seriously consider a triple suicide pact.)

My point is that time apart from characters we care about does perform a kind of work for the show, provided we’ve left things on the right note. The experience is not unlike an unhappy break-up: as we go about our newly droll Monday nights, we’re left to wonder constantly what these characters are doing without us. Are they having more fun? Spiralling out of control? Eating leftovers and growing less and less concerned about personal hygiene? Personally I’ve been consumed by any number of burning questions: are Peter and Claire any further along the slippery slope toward becoming kissing cousins? Or has Claire acquired a taste for something a little darker, perhaps, having entrusted herself to the Haitian? Is Hiro wising up at all, and using his powers for profit? Have Sylar and Suresh resolved their differences and resumed their wacky, Thelma & Louise road trip?

Time apart is only productive if it ends with time together, so by now I’m curious to see how much ground Heroes will cover with its remaining five episodes. Aside from resolving the whole saving-the-world storyline, setting up a second season is going to involve some serious work. And since I can’t imagine being distracted by the way Milo Ventimiglia’s mouth gets all asymmetrical whenever he says anything (not to mention his 90210 haircut) for another whole season, I’m crossing my fingers in the hope that the show’s writers are hard at work dreaming up some new heroes for us.

And finally, one parting wish for the show’s return tomorrow night: I don’t really expect NBC to be quite so bold as, say, HBO – I’m thinking of the season 5 finale of Oz, when the show’s erstwhile narrator was killed with an entire season remaining for the series – but I would be so happy if Sylar did us all a favor and lobotomized the hell out of Mohinder. Narratively he’s 100% disposable: Sylar’s character (or even Primatech) already does the work of explicitly linking the various heroes we’ve met. And honestly I couldn’t possibly care less about Mohinder’s daddy issues (which are such a de-clawed commentary on South Asian parenting styles as to be a joke more than anything else — just ask some of my TubaTV colleagues). Please please please, NBC! May Mohinder not survive another episode.

– J.C. Freñán