Saturday, February 16, 2008

Jericho: Revenge of the Peanut Gallery
Jericho: The Return could easily be subtitled “Revenge of the Peanut Gallery.” After diehard fans flooded CBS with thousands of peanuts (by some counts, 40,000 pounds worth) protesting the show’s cancellation, Jericho got a seven episode reprieve. It’s do or die time now for the post-apocalyptic series set in Kansas, and it’s returned as a conspiracy theorist’s wet dream.

It appears now that the “September” attacks launched against 23 cities and resulting in some 15 million deaths didn’t originate in North Korea and Iran, after all. Nope—it was an inside job plotted by some kind of shadow government in collusion with equally shadowy corporations. And they were so meticulous in their machinations that the dim-witted American public was utterly clueless. Nukes have that effect on people.

What made the first season of Jericho a ratings fiasco was its mom and apple pie version of the apocalypse. The premise of a small town in Kansas cut off from the world, struggling for survival in the face of unimaginable destruction, was never explored in anything resembling reality—or even satire. The kind of uncertainty that was the premise of the series breeds either panic or ennui, but in Jericho, a lets-pull-ourselves-up-by-our-bootstraps speech by Gerald McRaney’s character invariably brought the town together. Admittedly, in the second half of the season, a bit of paranoia was brought into play, mostly in the form of the town’s feud with the neighboring town New Bern, but even that came across more as high school rivalries than survival instincts. Even as they warring factions prepared for their final showdown at the season’s finale, it came across as a crosstown rivalry.

If the first season didn’t hold up to scrutiny, Jericho nonetheless built a small, but dedicated fanbase. Perhaps the campaign to save the show was based on economics, or maybe they just didn’t know that peanuts are more akin to beans than nuts. Either way, they’re unlikely to notice that the amped up, albeit abbreviated, Season Two takes the series more deeply into the valley of the lowest common denominator.

Where Season One focused on survival, however naively, Jericho now claims to focus on rebuilding and reconstruction. Taking its cues from everything to the American Civil War to the war in Iraq, with a little bit of the American Revolution thrown in for luck, the series now goes for a play at relevance to current events. It ends up being a series of clichés we’ve seen too many times before. Even more sadly, any “statements” it makes come off more as comic book morality than three-dimensional realism. Things take an ominous turn to be sure, but they presuppose that Baghdad and Jericho are interchangeable.

What was America is splintered into three different regions—west of the ‘blue line” (defined as the Mississippi River), the newly formed Allied States of America, based in Cheyenne, Wyoming has set up a decidedly right of center government, replete with revisionist history, an appointed president and a drive for a constitutional convention designed to redefine inalienable rights. East of the Mississippi is the tattered remains of the United States, now headquartered somewhere in Ohio. Which side will win apparently depends on an alliance with the reformed Republic of Texas. For reasons that may have logic in a parallel universe, Jericho becomes the focal point in the struggle for America.

To be sure, there are any number of allegorical allusions the series could have touched upon with such a setup. The show’s producers failed to hit on any of them. In a rush to either put the dog to sleep or keep it on life support. They’ve opted for the latter, crueler option. Rather than actually tackling the issues they’ve set themselves up to confront, they’ve fallen back on the future as Old West cliché, thrown in the inevitable Big Brother on a big screen TV, thrown in a renegade secret agent and a sympathetic military commander, dashed in equal parts conspiracy and romance, and tossed it to the viewer like so many table scraps.

The days of Jericho are numbered. Hokey romance and daft conspiracies can only fuel the imagination so much. Having seen three of the seven episodes, I see very little hope for either a satisfactory conclusion, or a promiseof a third season.

Then again, I hate peanuts.