In the same way as The War Game (1965), The Day After (1983) and Threads (1984) encapsulated the public zeitgeist and political landscape in the era of the Cold War, a new strain of fiction has emerged in the US since 2001 that draws on the post 9/11 climate of paranoia and fear. In July 2009 Brian Stelter published a piece in The New York Times entitled ‘It’s Doomsday Once Again. Are We Having Fun Yet?’. In this article reality show producer Thom Beers cites post 9/11 anxiety and economic woes as the key reasons for a recent spate of post-catastrophe fiction. The September 11 attacks created a public anxiety and paranoia around terrorism and domestic threats and the resulting ‘War on Terror’ and hunt for weapons of mass destruction raised public levels of nuclear fear. This fear has resulted in films like I am Legend (2007) and Cloverfield (2008), novels like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) and TV shows like CBS’s Jericho (2006-2008).
There have been a number of TV shows that have dealt with this theme in various ways – Battlestar Galactica, Lost and Flash Forward are some that come to mind – and despite the fact that the pilot of 24 was made before the September attacks in 2001 it is often cited as the definitive post-9/11 zeitgeist show. However I believe that Jericho is the most clearly defined as a TV programme that deals with this fear head-on. Where 24 focuses on preventing catastrophes like nuclear attacks from happening, Jericho deals with what might happen to society if such an attack occurred.
Jericho is about the situation that the residents of a small Kansas town face in the aftermath of a nuclear attack on the USA. The premise of the show is that 23 American cities have been destroyed in a nuclear attack. The town of Jericho is 150 miles away from the nearest attack in Denver but the resulting mushroom cloud is clearly visible on the horizon. Despite being out of range of most of the fallout from the blasts, the residents of Jericho face more and more problems as the story progresses as electricity, communications and political control quickly break down.
The show works because it has a very human element, it pays attention to the little details of life and relationships are as important as the overarching plot. Many of the characters are morally ambiguous or their arc takes them from one place to another in an organic way through the story. Themes like love, friendship and family are given as much emphasis as stories about dealing with lack of fuel, food or medical resources and the struggle to retain social order. This gives the show heart. Despite interference in the early part of season one by the network, who felt that the premise was too grim for audiences, Jericho really comes into its own in the latter part of the first season as it explores the effects of obliterated infrastructure and the gradual fear and social decay and survival instincts that leads to neighbours turning against each other.
The parallels to the Bush administration of the day are easy to draw and became even more blatant in the second season. A dubiously elected president taking orders from a Cheney-like character can easily be read as a representation of George W. Bush. Private companies with controversial links to the US government like Haliburton and private armies like Blackwater are represented on the show by the shady Jennings & Rall Corporation and its military subsidiary Ravenwood. The parallels continue as the newly formed government make plans to retaliate against North Korea and Iran without any proof that this is where the attacks came from as a rebuke of Bush Doctrine’s policies of pre-emption and Military primacy.
Unfortunately a long mid-season hiatus during its first season, followed by the return of Jericho at a different timeslot in competition with the hugely popular American Idol, resulted in a severe drop in ratings from which the show never fully recovered. Originally cancelled after one season, fans of the show bombarded the CBS network offices with over 45,000 pounds of peanuts and successfully ensured a second season of seven episodes. Even though the show’s run could not be extended any further than this the seven additional episodes did allow for all of the loose plot threads to be tied up before the end.