Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Camera Obscura
    by John Joseph Adams
September 2006

Alas, Babylon Jericho

The apocalypse comes to Kansas in CBS's Jericho, but retreads some very familiar ground

Director: Jon Turteltaub
Writer: Stephen Chbosky
Starring: Skeet Ulrich, Ashley Scott, Sprague Grayden, Kenneth Mitchell, Lennie James, Michael Gaston, Erik Knudsen, Gerald McRaney, Pamela Reed
Air Date: September 20 at 8:00 PM on CBS
Rated [unknown] / 60 minutes / 2006
(out of four)

Jericho, Kansas is a quiet little country town. A place where everybody seems to know everybody else, and the mayor is on a first-name basis with most of the townspeople.

Jake Green (Ulrich) returns to Jericho after some undetermined time away; what he was doing during that time remains a mystery throughout the pilot—he was either in the army, the navy, off playing minor league baseball, or, most likely, something else entirely. He's back to claim the inheritance his grandfather left in the trust of his father, Mayor Green (McRaney), but dear old dad suspects that black sheep Jake might be trying to pull the wool over his eyes, and doesn't trust him with the money, and so refuses. This leads to the two parting on less than amicable terms, after their brief and tempestuous reunion, and so after stopping by his beloved grandfather's grave, Jake hits the road again after only a very short stay, despite his mother's protestations that he stay at least one more day.

But before Jake gets very far away, he spies an ominous sight in the distance: the orange and black fiery plume of a mushroom cloud. Distracted by the sight, he's not paying attention to the road...and neither is a fellow motorist who drifts into Jake's lane and slams into his car in a head-on collision. Jake survives (and is the only survivor of) the crash, but he's wounded and left stranded miles outside of town.

Shortly after his crash, Jake is approached by two frightened children, who were aboard a school bus, returning home from a field trip, when the bomb (or whatever it was—for sake of argument, we'll call it a bomb) dropped. Their bus crashes after colliding with a deer, apparently killing the driver, and breaking the leg of the young teacher (or teacher's aide), Heather (Grayden), leaving Jake as the only adult in the vicinity to take control of the situation.

Back in Jericho, the townsfolk see the mushroom cloud too, of course. It seems apparent that the blast originated in the vicinity of Denver, though what caused the explosion, or how it happened remains a mystery. Was it a nuclear accident? Was it a test gone awry? Was the United States under attack?

The mayor rushes to the sheriff's office to figure out what's going on. Frightened parents inform him of the missing school bus. The sheriff is dispatched to find the children, but instead finds an overturned prison bus, with all of the convicts apparently already escaped, the guards dead. Well, not all of the convicts—one remains alive on board, and ambushes the sheriff.

A number of other characters are introduced—or introduced as important players, rather—during the chaos: Robert Hawkins, who might be an ex-St. Louis cop, but is possibly a malefactor; Oliver, the town kook who believes in aliens; Dale, a young boy who finds a answering machine message from his mother, and hears her last moments as an explosion takes her life; an IRS agent in town to audit one of Jake's long-time friends; and Gray Anderson (Gaston), the mayor's opponent in the current mayoral race.

Meanwhile, Emily, who was listening to her iPod and busy planning a welcome home party for her fiancée Roger, doesn't hear about the bomb, and so rushes off toward the airport, where she runs into some after effects of the bomb not yet seen in Jericho...

Though Mayor Green seems well-liked by the townsfolk, the disaster strikes in the midst of an election campaign, and so it seems clear that his opponent could potentially make a power-play to take control of the town amidst the chaos, or to split the town into two rival factions. And though Jericho is a small country town, it's not exactly a Podunk town like Mayberry—there seems to be a fairly large population, and it seems pretty clear that the little grocery market isn't going to have enough provisions to feed everyone for very long. This, along with the already flaring tempers as citizens fought over the last drops of gas at the local pump, bodes ill for the town's peace of mind (but bodes well for the viewer, as it's sure to keep the tension ratcheted up).

The show gets off to a bit of a rough start, as Jake reunites with his family and reacquaints himself with the town. But once the bomb drops, the show kicks into gear. There are some genuinely affecting and scary moments as the citizens of Jericho first see and hear about the bombs.

It's the family drama parts of the show that don't quite succeed. Most of that sort of interaction comes off as a bit too schmaltzy for my liking (as was the music, though I should note that my advance screener DVD said that the music might be temporary—let's hope it is), but hopefully that will diminish as the characters/actors develop a better rapport with each other.

Though Jake is the primary protagonist, it's clear that the other supporting characters will play an important role as the show progresses, no doubt to depict the horrors of living in a post-apocalyptic landscape from as many points of view as possible. But speaking of the supporting cast, I sincerely hope that Hawkins doesn't turn out to be the antagonist he's hinted to be in the pilot; the direction seems to indicate that he's probably one of the escaped prisoners, which would have been fine, but I'd hate to see the only non-white character on the show turn out to be a villain.

CBS is positioning the show as a family drama, not as science fiction. Or as a publicist pointed out to me, it is post-apocalyptic, but "based on events that could actually happen," so not really science fiction. While that phraseology is mildly insulting to the science fiction fan, I think I know what CBS is trying to say. Jericho is attempting to be Alas, Babylon, not A Canticle for Leibowitz. What it might also be trying to say is: there's nothing original here that hasn't already been done in SF, but it might seem new and fresh to a mainstream audience.

What remains to be seen is if Jericho will convey that same sort of realistic struggle for existence in a post-apocalyptic world that Alas, Babylon so vividly portrays, or if it will gloss over the harsher realities of an apocalyptic landscape in favor of depicting heart-warming family drama. If the former, it could very well develop into something quite good; if the latter, it'll, well, it'll probably bomb. I'm not sure which I expect to happen, but I'm going to tune in to find out.

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