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The Long Apocalypse in Jericho and Jeremiah

Kim Hawthorne as Theo in Jeremiah

In retrospect, the short-lived and prematurely canceled series Jericho (2006–2008) and Jeremiah (2002–2004), the first on CBS and the second on Showtime, struck a different tone, and expressed keener anxieties, than their contemporaries in the cluttered, and otherwise profitable, post-apocalyptic genre. While the more well-known and spectacular blockbuster releases of the oughts – The Day After Tomorrow (2004), I Am Legend (2007), 2012 (2009) – tend to treat the event of global destruction as an awesome spectacle, Jericho and Jeremiah are more concerned with the aftermath and its difficult, uneven realization. In the three Hollywood films, by contrast, the end of the world unfolds in a dramatic, thrilling present, its causes transparent if not advertised on the movie poster.

Though these films are still anxious to watch, it is mostly in a phenomenal sense. Global warming, disease control, a preordained, mythological fate provide only the occasion for their sensational illustration and the requisite deployment of new, digital effects. The dissolution of Los Angeles in 2012 – its impossible vaporization before our eyes – is a pleasure in its own right, as is the frozen, encrusting of urban structures on a massive scale in The Day After Tomorrow; but the slickness of these surfaces and the new sublimity they introduce to the cinema represent an impulse altogether different from that of Jericho and Jeremiah, which, as ‘long form’ television series, are more inclined to be patient and invested in the development of a rich and expansive story world.

In Jericho, the extent, perpetrators, and motivation of the nuclear attack on the United States is not known for some time, and our confidence in the information we do collect, always through the characters, is systematically challenged and called into question at every narrative turn. The information blackout that spans the first half of the first season extends to the spectator, reproducing the anxiety of the citizens of Jericho, Kansas and undermining the traditional clarity required to appreciate an apocalyptic spectacle. Jeremiah, to similar effect, begins fifteen years after “The Big Death” that wiped out the world population over the age of puberty, confining the memories of the past to those of children, who, now grown up, bear only the dimmest recollection of the world as it was.

Skeet Ulrich as Jake Green in Jericho

In place of the spectacle of material destruction, both shows chronicle the gradual dissolution of society into a form that, we are periodically reminded, secretly resembles our own. Instead of buildings melting into thin air, institutions crumble and splinter, exposing the fragile social contracts they depend upon. The poor lighting, artificial sets, and excessive use of interiors, symptoms of the low budgets with which these shows were working, only adds to the sense that the world would prefer to whither away at a speed that should alarm even the most libertarian amongst us. In Jericho, it is only a matter of days, or episodes, before the cupboard is empty, gas tanks dry, and the power grid permanently down. The black market quickly becomes the market, money turns to paper, barter returns, and information is traded like a commodity. A fire at the library matters, although there’s no longer much reason to go to school. The mayor, soon after, is challenged and deposed, martial law declared and fair trial suspended. The neighboring town, lacking in resources, wages an attack, justifying the state of emergency and suspension of reason. Everyone is given a gun. The hospital now depends on criminals granted amnesty to secure them supplies. Strange alliances are formed and just as quickly dissolved. Institutions once thought whole and sound divide ceaselessly. Though the state of the federal government can not be confirmed, its mercenaries, presumably acting on its behalf, loot, maraud, and terrorize local populations in exchange for ‘protection’. And when we later learn that the country has splintered into five that closely resemble our own regional voting blocs – one of which, it turns out, perpetrated the attacks on behalf of a corporate sponsor – it’s clear that the world they find themselves living in is supposed to be our own drawn in relief. The series ends, rather abruptly, with a declaration of civil war – against a corporate-owned illegitimate nation – when the truth is exposed and the government of Cheyenne called into question. Though hope, in a fashion, is restored, it’s a meager one, with a result displaced to a distant and, it would seem, unrepresentable future.

Jeremiah is no less hopeful and humanistic, but its image of the future, written for premium cable rather than network tv, bears fewer signs of editorial intervention. Like Jericho, the trading post has replaced the supermarket, an institution few by now can remember, goods are bartered, and gas is rare. There is no government; but in its place, regional criminal overlords protect small populations in exchange for goods, sex, and conscription. Theo, a vicious, cunning, unpredictable overlord, played by a menacing Kim Hawthorne, represents this new barbarism. From her fortress, an island of refuge, culture, and experimentation – a team of nerds is shown working around the clock on a steam engine, in exchange for books and security – she wages a ruthless war for coveted resources and information on the fabled End of the World, a zone where electricity is rumored to run and food is plenty.

Though Theo’s world, which could just as well be Jericho’s ten years later, bears all the signs of a recycled feudal era – the fortress and moat-like gates, the trading posts and marauding highwaymen, the strung-up thieves and conniving nomads – all the romance, pastoral landscapes, and promise of an enlightened era to follow have been evacuated from the image, leaving in their place a hollowed-out world of ruins and perpetual threat. This new barbarian, transposed from the dawn of modernity to its twilight, allows for little of the glory of old: instead of turning our age on its head, for the pleasure of recognizing ourselves in embryonic form, Theo stands it right side up like a corpse strung up as a warning. When Theo tells Jeremiah, with a sinister chuckle, that her comrade likes to describe the fortress, abuzz with clashing mementos of the past and ill-conceived projects for the future, as “postmodern entropy, though I don’t know what that means,” the effect is more chilling than comedic. In place of the familiar, hopeful figure of a barbarian king posed on the cusp of enlightenment but still too savage to proceed any further, we find in Theo its opposite: the fading into oblivion of civilization, with only an endless brutality to follow. Like the last piece of rock candy that Kurdy (Malcolm-Jamal Warner) savors to onlookers’ child-like amazement, Theo’s glib quotation floats past like a fragment of the academy beset, in our time, by forces that, as Jeremiah reminds us, wait in the wings eager to commit us to painful reinventions – not just of the steam engine, but of concepts and cultures, whole traditions and arts.

As with Jericho, the low budget with which this program was clearly produced only adds to the sense of an impoverished world, as if the show itself was made in the age it depicts: instead of the dazzling, crowded, choreographed tracking shots of Children of Men, a film that ostensibly imagines a comparable imminent future, many of the sets and settings of Jeremiah are plucked from existing, recognizable locales, and ones that could be found in a tour of any Midwestern city. An encounter with a white power group that has rounded-up in pens all the nonwhite people they could find, to execute as punishment for the Big Death they are accused of bringing, is shot in a postindustrial wasteland of abandoned factories and burnt-out buildings, structures not unlike those that populate the waterfront here in Pittsburgh. However, the feudal future is perhaps most elegantly captured in the short vignettes that intercut Jeremiah (Luke Perry) and Kurdy’s journey to the End of the World: pitched lean-to tents on an abandoned highway shoulder; an isolated campfire in the woods surrounded by a curtain of darkness that signals nothing beyond; a crowd of onlookers gazing up at a blown-out transformer on a telephone pole, and who when asked what they’re looking at respond, somewhat vacuously and mystically, that they’re waiting for a call.

Though both Jericho and Jeremiah do at times suffer from bad writing, forced dialogue, and uneven plot development, reasons that no doubt contributed to their premature cancellation, their vision is perhaps the more keen, and their sensibility sharp, for it. The fragmentation of spaces, the disconnection of characters’ milieux, and the conspicuous absence of an underlying social structure to connect them, can impose on the series an artifice or awkwardness that is as much a symptom of the isolation that circumscribes every element – one striking side-effect of these shows is their reintroduction of the possibility of being a stranger without a history – as it is a problem of how to build from scratch a world that has been reduced to traces, ruins, and emblems of our own.

These traces, which are on one level simply signposts by which to recognize in their universe ours, are not, however, strictly morbid indices of a bygone destruction. Opposite the post-apocalyptic blockbuster, there is little willful or celebratory in them. They seem to spring from an altogether different impulse – not of destruction, but exhaustion, fatigue. Jeremiah and Jericho’s Jake (Skeet Ulrich), the two series’ lead protagonists, are distinguished less by a fearless fury than a world-weary wisdom, and in that respect depart wildly from the madcap bravado of films like Mad Max (1979) and Escape from New York (1981), universes with which these two programs’ could, at first glance, be confused. This exhaustion with the world and its creeping desolation is, I would like to suggest, more productive and progressive than cynical and dramatic. In each case, after all, the hope and desire is to start fresh, out of the ruins, rather than to witness for its own sake their spectacular, devastating production. If the Western has gone missing, as some seem to think it has, maybe it’s just hiding out here, on television, and with a new frontier – not out west in the past, but all over, in the future.

In New York, at the Occupy Wall Street headquarters, Zizek recently remarked that films today have no trouble imagining the end of the world, but they can’t imagine the end of capitalism. What’s perhaps most remarkable about these two programs is their separation of the two: in each case, the world manages to survive and persist while its modern capitalist structure does not,[1] and in each case, the hopeful, if gruesome, attempts at reconstruction that follow find little to miss in the specter of the latter. The question, rather, posed by the shows to their universe, which is really ours in disguise, is what should come next, and are we really prepared to pay the price of admission. Jericho‘s and Jeremiah‘s most important, and painful, reminder, however, is that the transition, if there could ever be one, would less resemble a global revolution than a descent into a second dark ages – not as farce, but as tragedy.

Footnotes

  1. The affinities between On the Beach and Jericho and Jeremiah, especially as they concern the specter of a capitalist economy in a world that no longer has one, were brought to my attention by Carolyn Dekker‘s paper for the Battlegrounds conference last week, “Turning Away to Confront Nuclear War: On the Beach and the Nuclear Pastoral.” However, where the short-lived and soon to expire post-apocalyptic world of On the Beach seems to be characterized more by a melancholic indulgence in commodities and high end lifestyle – insofar as in this last, brief moment of civilization there is neither class nor money – Jericho and Jeremiah retain the category of the precious and the rare, and so the valuable, commodity, only it’s no longer governed by the kind of market system associated with capitalism proper and objects once thought valuable are now value-less, just as objects once considered unremarkable, and so cheap, command extraordinary prices. The series in fact begins with an altercation over AA batteries at a trading post. For these reasons, the mood and melancholy of On the Beach, at least as it relates to consumerism and commodity culture, ultimately seems more closely related to the shopping, dress up, and performance scene in the mall in Dawn of the Dead. []