“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


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