Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Life and death on the Prairie

Reading James Howard Kunstler's typically apocalyptic latest post, I was reminded of Jericho, the cheeseball, short-lived TV series I've been watching on DVD.

Kunstler, a Peak Oil theorist, argues that the looming economic crisis will be "something at least twice as bad as the Great Depression of the 1930s: people with no money in a land with no resources (with manpower that has no discipline), hardly any family farms left, cities that are basket-cases of bottomless need, comatose small towns stripped of their assets and social capital, an aviation industry on the verge of death, and a railroad system that is the laughingstock of the world. Not to mention the mind-boggling liabilities of suburbia and the motoring infrastructure that services it."

The premise of the show is that nuclear explosions have destroyed several American major cities, leading to utter chaos in the entire country; the action is centered on Jericho, a small Kansas town cut off from the rest of the U.S. as communications break down, and power, gas and food run out. The response to the crisis is pretty much exactly as Kunstler described it above—though as I finish watching the first season, I'm entirely unclear as to whether the writers intended to critique the American way of life by showing the citizens of Jericho to be foolish, spoiled, childish, irresponsible and selfish, or if they had no idea they were painting such a damning portrait. A satirical viewpoint does peek at times, as when a teen boy (already established as a bit of a douche) happily explains that once the Internet is back on, everything will be all right again, food will be delivered, etc. But are the town's power couple, the former mayor and his wife (Gerald McRaney and Pamela Reed), really meant to be insufferably self-righteous characters prompt to cast judgment (the stereotypical judgmental heartland) or are they meant to represent good, old-school American values? I truly cannot tell.

It's the way Jericho's citizens adapt—or not—to their new circumstances that most resembles Kunstler's description of "comatose small towns stripped of their assets and social capital." First of all, this is Kansas and these people are starving in the middle of winter because no food is delivered and subsistence agriculture doesn't exist; the sole exception, it seems, is a single corn-growing farm (which, characteristically, is audited by the IRS for debt at the beginning of the show). Second, for several days, even weeks, after the first explosion, a lot of townspeople just hang out at the local bar, waiting for help to magically appear. Similarly, they seem content living in ignorance of what happened, and nobody has any interest in exploring the surrounding area—even though we are shown a landing strip and some small planes. Nobody attempts to find alternative sources of energy until months have passed. The passivity is simply extraordinary.

Now I realize we're talking about a series starring Skeet Ulrich here, but Jericho is one of those products whose anthropological/political interest is larger than its production values (as in the ol' Star Trek days, the show was visibly shot in a handful of Southern California locations and absolutely nothing about it looks either Kansan or post-nuclear). Even when it feels as if the creators' intents and what's on screen diverge, a lesson is taught: If there was a major catastrophe in America, the country would be woefully unprepared. And the idea of a Blackwater-like paramilitary company running amok in a devastated country is chillingly realistic.

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