Monday, July 28, 2008

Trees died for this?

Lurking in the mail pile waiting for me at work were two tomes: The Amazing Book of Useless Information and Disgusting Things: A Miscellany. The former is a follow-up to The Book of Useless Information and is subtitled "More Things You Didn't Need to Know But Are About to Find Out," while the latter is basically a Garbage Pail Kids version. I realize there's a lot of more offending books, but for some reason those particularly irk me.

For all this I blame Ben Schott and his Miscellanies, which at least display decent wit. The copycats are just unbearable: "Antarctic means 'opposite the Arctic'," The Amazing Book tells us. "American and Russian spaceflights have always included chocolate." "The most popular gift in Eastern Europe is a bottle of vodka." Jeezus, these guys just google stuff randomly and call it a book! Disgusting Things, meanwhile, answers pressing questions such as "Why do dog farts smell so bad?" and "Do some women create artwork with their placentas?" What a colossal waste.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Dateline London, part 3

Farewell, London, it was nice getting to know you a little better. Indeed, it was only on this, my fifth or so visit, that I feel I finally got London. Before, I could never get the lay of the land and constantly got hopelessly lost, unable to figure out where the most basic landmarks were in relation to each other. I truly think it had something to do with the driving-on-the-left thing, as I experienced a similar disorientation on my trips to Australia. In any case for some reason things clicked this time, and I was able to actually enjoy walking around—especially since I also knew which bus to take, and which direction to take it in.

A couple of recent highlights: a really good lunch buffet in a vegetarian South Asian place (lots more fresh veggies and fruits than we'd find in the NY equivalent, where they seem to think everything has to be drenched in either sauce or syrup) and Hampstead Heath. Now that is a city park! I was struck by how bucolic it was, especially since unlike Central/Prospect Park, it wasn't overwhelmed by nonstop athletic activity and nutty picnics in which people feel they have to transplant their entire living room to the outdoors, complete with recliners and stereo systems. The most striking feature: the swimming ponds reserved for men and women. We only saw the women's one, of course, and it was like being beamed onto another planet; the sense of isolation was enhanced by the fact that our host and guide tried to use her GPS as a joke and the device was utterly befuddled as to what our location was. It felt like a slice of women's utopia lifted out of a 1970s feminist novel. I wonder if such a thing could exist in New York.

Before I leave for Heathrow, some observations about cultural differences on television.

In Stockholm, we watched a show called Singing Bee, on which contestants are tested on their knowledge of song lyrics. (I believe there was an American version but it didn't last.) The participants were all quite good, but what blew me away is that they essentially knew pop classics in two languages, Swedish and English. They had no idea what would be thrown their way but they never looked fazed. A guy was equally at ease performing Eurovision entries, Motown, and Swedish tunes I couldn't recognize. Oh, and "The Final Countdown." I'd like to see English or American contestants with this kind of bilingual facility. Actually, you could find them, but they'd be, like, Asian in England, Hispanic in the US. Perhaps a similarly bilingual show exists on, say, Univision in America, but I seriously doubt it could be on one of the major English-speaking networks.

In London, we caught the end of the British version of Deal or No Deal. First, we were surprised by how many family and friends the contestant, Betty, was allowed. But then it turned out they were the people holding the suitcases! So instead of a big razzamatazz set with identikit models holding cases out of a James Bond movie, you had totally normal people, in all shapes, ages and colors, around some kind of table. Second, the whole thing was tuned down several notches from the hysteria reigning on the US version, which somehow bolstered the suspense. It was kinda hushed and thoughtful, and the closeups on Betty's anguished face were almost…haunting.

Which brings me to third: Betty seemed to be in her late fifties/early sixties and looked every hard-lived second of it (HD is particularly merciless). Our Brit host remarked that the show looked like a Mike Leigh movie! I doubt Betty would be allowed on American television: The web of wrinkles and creases on her face harshly illustrated the very notion of aging and mortality, which is not allowed to be suggested in the youth-obsessed US. You could tell Betty had not had an easy life, which of course made the suspense even more biting. Very canny casting there!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Thursday, July 24, 2008

About Jacques Nolot

Oops, forgot to mention that my interview with director Jacques Nolot came out in Time Out New York last week.

I'm loathe to interview young artists these days because for the most part, they don't have much to say. Sorry, they just don't. Older ones, on the on other hand, do have stories, and it's hard to find somebody with better stories than Nolot, a wonderfully wry raconteur who's seen it all and is not afraid to say it all. Read on…

Dateline London, part 2

More sunny weather in London. Yesterday we walked around parts of the East End, with a coffee break at the new Rough Trade shop. I'd only been to the old one, near Portobello Road if I remember correctly, and the difference between the two is like that between a tenement and a boutique hotel. The new store is really spacious, with a little stage in the back for free performances (Neon Neon tonight, Daniel Johnston Saturday), a row of computers with free internet access, and of course the now-de rigueur café. I couldn't help but wonder how they sustain themselves, with that much real estate in a happening neighborhood--aren't record stores supposed to be dying?

Much less impressive: accompanying the Sheila to a business meeting this morning, we had to take the tube at rush hour. I'll never whine about the NY subway at rush hour after that miserable experience. We had to let three trains go by before we could even get on one. Then being tall-ish, I had to stoop slightly, crammed against one of the curving sides. And we were so packed that of course reading was out of the question.

We've been using an Oyster card to get around. It's a magnetic card that you just press against readers as you enter and leave the tube, or as you board a bus. Recharging them is a breeze. Still, the price is high and getting around adds up quickly. And despite this snazzy technology, Stockholm still had the best innovation: you can buy bus tickets on your cell phone, then you just show the cell's screen to the driver as you board. Again, America looks completely stuck in the 20th century there. But since Americans don't travel abroad all that much, they don't even realize how antiquated their infrastructure is. And don't get me started on the rail situation!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Dateline London, part 1

Alas, we had to leave Stockholm yesterday. Goodbye, Tidy Town of the North! We flew on to London, where we'll be for a few days, visiting friends. Much to my surprise, it took us only 90 minutes between the moment we left the SAS plane and our stepping into our new temporary abode near the Fulham Broadway tube station. The smoothness and cleanliness (well, it was filthy compared to Stockholm but spotless compared to New York) of the public transportation were stupendous--even though we keep hearing about how it's a weakness of London. I'm quite obsessed about public transportation, and it's one of my favorite things to explore when I travel. In the midst of the hullaballoo about rising gas prices in America, the lack of debate on public transportation never ceases to amaze me: that is what pundits should discuss, not alternative fuels like ethanol and used cooking oil. As usual, Americans are more interested in bandaids and lunatic pseudo solutions rather than structural innovations--especially since developing decent public transportation would require real change and real sacrifice (ie, higher taxes).

But I digress…

I hadn't been to London in about five years but the mere transformation of Fulham Broadway in that interval says volume about gentrification: For a second I even thought I had led us to the wrong station as it was completely unrecognizable. Just imagine, I don't know, a basic stop on the F in New York renovated from top to bottom, going from a regular station to a subway emporium-slash-minimall with a movie theater, a Starbucks, a Borders, etc. That is what happened to Fulham Broadway in the past five years. The rest of the neighborhood has gone through a similar metamorphosis: it's really poshed up, paralleling, I suppose, the evolution of Chelsea FC, whose stadium is nearby (our host is a transplanted Liverpudlian and so loathes Chelski, as it's nicknamed due to its being owned by a Russian billionaire).

More updates after we go on the town today.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Dateline Stockholm, part 5

We picked the right day for our excursion to the Archipelago, as yesterday was a bit brisk but sunny, and we soaked up the rays on our trip to Finnhamn on the classic steamboat Storskär. The scenery reminded us of the Adirondacks in upstate New York: lots of green, rocky little islands, many with a house or two built on them. And while we did see a few powerboats, there were far more sailboats and far, far less of the humongous, obnoxious SUVs of the seas that clog up American waterways. The steamer was full of people carrying backpacks as the islands are great for camping and hiking (if you don't mind mosquitoes and ticks). The Sheila dipped a foot in the Baltic and promptly took it out, but the water's temperature didn't seem to faze the Swedes splashing about.

Oh yes, we also continued our exploration of Swedish husmanskost (home cooking) with pytt i panna, a sort of hash served with a pickle and beet slices. (I've lost count of the cinnamon rolls we've ingested.)

This morning, I headed up to Skogskyrkogården cemetary, where Greta Garbo is buried. It was quite a trek, as the subway line was under repair and I had to take a shuttle bus. Then I tried to find my way around the place, which is so spartan that it doesn't include many directions. Still, this has to be one of the most magnificent cemeteries I've ever seen; no wonder it's a UNESCO World Heritage site. A fine example of Swedish functionalism, it's completely different from the rococo excess of, say, Père-Lachaise in Paris; rather, it feels as if the graves are just in the woods. I was alone the entire time, walking in a light drizzle. Garbo's grave is a little more elaborate than the others, but not that much: just a reddish headstone with her name, no dates.

Alas, I won't have time to make it to Norra begravningsplatsen, which has Ingrid Bergman, August Strindberg, directors Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller, and Vilhelm Moberg, author of The Emigrants (upon which Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus based their musical Kristina från Duvemala).

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Dateline Stockholm, part 4

The Sheila and I were pleasantly surprised by how fun Mamma Mia! is, considering we didn't care for the play all that much. Meryl Streep looked as if she was having a total blast, which more than made up for the fact that the movie clearly takes place now, which makes the math behind a 20-year-old girl being born in the 70s rather wonky, to say the least. But hey, I stopped computing pretty darn fast. Plus, come on, we saw it in Stockholm!

Speaking of enduring magic, I'm quoted in this new Salon article about Abba's everlasting power. I wish I had remembered to mention, however, that for some music fans it's religious-era Bob Dylan, Ne-Yo's latest video and Arcade Fire fans that are cheesy. The cheese whiff clings to Abba mostly in the US and (a bit less so but still) England, countries with a very weird relation to European pop; that's because they're culturally protectionist when it comes to music and still find it difficult to accept the fact that a group from a non-English-speaking country could create great pop music that transcends its era.

Dateline Stockholm, part 3

I've been living in New York for 18 years now, and while I have visited the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building, I'd never seen Patti Smith live until yesterday evening. She plays regularly in town, including popular New Year's Eve stints, but somehow I'd always managed to miss her. Well actually I did see her once a few years ago, but it was a poetry reading in Central Park, one of her first public appearances after her husband's death. I guess I lacked the motivation to catch an actual show because the whole poetic-priestess bit kinda bored me. But I loved her covers album from last year, Twelve, which really drove home the point that she's a fantastic rock singer.

The crowd at the Stockholm Jazz Festival, where Smith was performing, was much larger than the previous day, and the average age higher (I didn't see any babies in sound-blocking headphones this time). The show got off to a great start ("Dancing Barefoot," a 20-minute version of "Are You Experienced") but then fell into a kind of maudlin, slow-paced rut. Things picked up again, however, with a series of absolute punches in the gut: "Pissing in a River," "Because the Night," "Smells Like Teen Spirit," "Rock and Roll Nigger"--she blazed through them all, the band (including classic PSG members Jay Dee Daugherty and Lenny Kaye) pumping mightily behind. And I'm sorry, but you just can't fake that kind of charisma.

On a sartorial note, Ms. Smith spent most of the set in a long coat, explaining at some point that she had a cold. She did take it off a couple of times, revealing not one of her trademark Ann Demeulemeester button-down shirts but a white T and mom-ish jeans (tucked into brown boots).

That was a fitting cap to a day spent exploring the neighborhood of Kungsholmen, then taking the tram around parts of Djurgården. The weather is a bit iffy today, which may provide appropriate atmospherics for a visit to the cemetary of Skogskyrkogården, where Greta Garbo is buried. More later.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Dateline Stockholm, part 2

Of course there is music! Our very first night, we were too bushed to go out so we watched Allsång på Skansen, broadcast live on television every Tuesday evening from the Skansen park in Stockholm. The show essentially consists of artists performing their own hits but also some pop and schlagerish classics and dansbands nuggets. The installment we saw had the Poodles (a glammy band that entered Melodifestivalen a couple of years ago) and some singers and comedians completely unknown to me. The concept is that the crowd sings along (= allsång) on the older tunes. The audience covers a fairly wide age range and it's really fun to watch hipster-looking twentysomethings enthusiastically sing their hearts out next to grannies and children. Allsång's popularity has grown so much that the Dilettante's Special Stockholm Correspondent told us that Robyn and Lena Philipsson have been on it.

Yesterday evening we went to the second night of the Stockholm Jazz Festival. Here, a shout-out to Liisa Tolonen and her crew in the press department, who must be among the most professional, the nicest I've seen in years of doing this job. The fest itself takes place on the grounds of the Museum of Modern Art on the island of Skeppsholmen (a 20-minute walk from where we're staying) and is remarkably run. I was struck by a few things: contrary to American practice, the prices at the concession stands didn't seem jacked up from what they'd be anywhere else in town; everything ran like clockwork despite a bad thunderstorm; the crowd covered a very wide age range, with kids as young as three wearing elaborate sound mufflers (kinda like the ones workers at airports wear); plenty of tidy portaloos. Also striking: people were clearly enjoying themselves but nobody was going wild, even during the Soundrack of Our Lives' awesome set. This last bit wasn't so good.

So, the music. Yesterday must have been Swedish Indie Rock Day because the two main acts on the main stage were Marit Bergman and the aforementioned TSOOL. I'm a big Bergman fan but I wasn't entirely convinced by her experiment: she did her entire set on the piano, backed by the Stockholm Strings quartet. I love her songs because of their bouncy pep and that was kinda lost in those arrangements. It may work better in a more intimate environment.

The most amazing thing is that the aforementioned thunderstorm erupted precisely as Bergman finished her last song, and stopped exactly as TSOOL took the stage. It was uncanny.

I'm not a big fan of TSOOL's albums but live, they smoked. (I realize I'm late to the party as great shows is exactly what's built them a good rep in the US these past few years.) Out of the three acts to emerge from the ashes of the legendary Union Carbide Productions, I'd always preferred the solo projects of guitarist Björn Olsson and drummer Henrik Rylander (so much so that I've interviewed them both for The Wire), but clearly I needed to see TSOOL live to get onboard. Even the Sheila, who displays a very Australian pickiness when it comes to rock & roll, was enthused. Favorite bit: Ian Persson, working a total Tony Iommi look that included super-tight 70s-style pants, 'tache and Gibson SG.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Dateline Stockholm, part 1

The worst thing about going on vacation is that you need to work twice as hard before leaving (hence the lack of posting) and twice as hard when you come back. But it's worth it 'cause I'm now in sunny Stockholm and on my first trip to the supermarket to stock up on lingonberry jam and fish balls, Abba was playing. So there.

After waking up late in the splendid abode of the Dilettante's Stockholm Correspondent, the Sheila and I spent our first day walking around and getting our bearings, refueling along the way with rather good lattes. I like getting them in tall glasses (same as in Kiev), which allows one to stare at the swirling milk. When we were driving in the Queensland countryside a few years ago, we passed a few "Tidy Towns" (a hotly contested award apparently), and yesterday the Sheila reflected that Stockholm was one big Tidy Town. Coming from New York, where trash flies freely around, it feels positively spic and span here.

After walking for a few hours, we finally bought a weeklong public-transportation pass and jumped on the first bus that came around--literally. We had no idea where we were going. We're big fans of buses (the regular ones, not the tourist ones) and they really are the best way to discover a city. Not to mention a great way to get cheaper food; the Sheila pointed out that we were going to feed on the "end of the line specials," which are a lot more affordable to us, crippled by our third-world currency, than the meals in the posh area where we're staying.

Today's program: The lovely Marit Bergman, a longtime Dilettante fave, is playing the Stockhom Jazz Festival (it must be Swedish Indie Rock Day as the Soundtrack of Our Lives is also on the schedule) so we're going to head up that way.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Raging fires

Predictably, Die Soldaten is dividing people. Obviously I stand on the pro side, and very much so, but others didn't care for the show. Anne Midgette's reaction in the Washington Post is interesting.

I won't comment on the specifically musical criticism, not being equipped to do so, so I'll focus on the content and staging. First, she's wrong right off the bat when she says "This is a work that is ready to rebel, even if it is not quite sure against what." Alois Bernd Zimmermann knows exactly what he's criticizing and rebelling against, and he often explicitly states it: the abuse of women by men.

"The exorbitant outlay for the movable seats proved a tremendously expensive gimmick: Pountney could not think of anything more creative to do than move the audience to a different part of the runway for each scene," Midgette writes. Actually, I found the device tremendously effective, and used very well (the seats don't move "for each scene," as she writes). It allows Pountney to play on both space and time, providing a sense of depth as we watch several actions happening either at once or at different moments down the 260-foot length of the runway. It also allows him to explore both a sense of crushing grandeur and intimacy; in that way, the moving seats function like a camera, zooming in and out of particular scenes.

Midgette also says that having Marie raped by men in Santa Claus suits is too obvious an image—but if this stuff was that obvious and easy to come up with, we'd see it (or something similar) more often on our stages. And we just don't. (I'm surprised she doesn't mention the stunning, utterly terrifing pig masks. Obvious, perhaps, but very, very effective—they really scared me.) Those images may look obvious because they are in such adequation with the music and themes, but they really are not that simple. A good director surprises you but also makes you think that what he does is inevitable—which for some may look obvious. Achieving both at the same time is very very difficult, but that's what Pountney did.

That rape scene, in fact, seems to be a problem for many. But it is as horrible as it needs to be. It is nauseating, but not in a way that made me despise the creative team. Unlike torture porn in contemporary horror movies, which makes me find the directors abhorrent, that scene made me despise what the characters did, not what the director did. My esteemed colleague Steve Smith pointed out that the scene doesn't exist in the original, or rather that it happens offstage. Well, it does exist then—Pountney just chose to make us see it. Yes, it is a deliberate decision to hit the audience over the head, to push our collective face into a pit of abjection, but I'd argue that as an audience, we need to go there, we need to descend into stomach-churning hell.

Finally, that Die Soldaten has provoked such arguments is the final proof, if needed, that it has fulfilled its purpose as a piece of art. If you want lukewarm, you can have it any day on any stage in New York. And me, I hate lukewarm.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Home is where Abba is

I've been a lot more excited about the movie version of Mamma Mia! than the stage one, mostly due to Meryl Streep's presence. But for some reason it belatedly occurred to me that I could see it on vacation in about ten days…in Stockholm!

The release of the movie has thrust Abba back in the spotlight, with the four members appearing together at the Swedish premiere. I'm very happy, however, to hear Benny and Björn state one more time that the band isn't going to reunite, no matter how much they get paid. What's a little less good is the avalanche of articles offering backhanded compliment to the band. One in The Independent, at least, looks more closely than usual to the craft behind the glitz. I particularly agree with the line "In Britain and America, bands had – and still have – a huge reverence for tradition and an obsession with authenticity. Scandi-pop doesn't have to pay homage to old bluesmen, or agonise about keeping it real. It can just grab whatever sounds best and feels right."

Of course there's also the usual blather about Abba's lyrics. The author remarks that they're not any more clunky that Chris de Burgh's "Lady in Red," but this is faint praise again—almost anything is swifter than "Lady in Red." It'd be more daring, and more honest, to say Abba's lyrics aren't any clunkier than those by Chris Martin, Duffy, Mariah Carey or, to mention just one major Abba pilferer, Madonna: "I don't like cities, but I like New York/Other places make me feel like a dork/Los Angeles is for people who sleep/Paris and London, baby you can keep." Oy. And unlike Abba, English is these people's native language.

Bitter truths

Charles P. Pierce's essay in Esquire about the Obama candidacy is one of the finest I've read so far. Of course, it helps that I share Pierce's take on Obama's discourse, and the fact that it's basically giving Americans a free-pass card (change without sacrifice, easy charisma over bitter pill). My main qualm is that Pierce's rhetorical gimmicks get a bit grating after a while, but it's easy enough to overlook them and focus on the ideas themselves.

What I like best about this piece is the rage and disappointment that run through it—not at Obama or other politicians, which would be too easy, but at the American people themselves. For despite all the talk about freedom and democracy, Americans do no exercise their most basic rights and do not fulfill their most basic duties as citizens, including voting and holding their elected representatives accountable. But hey, freedom is being able to drive your big-ass car wherever and whenever you want, right?

Pierce comes down harshly on Obama for feeding us bromides about the country's greatness: "The cynic will admit that it’s all great politics. Tell America that it is a great country that simply has lost its way for a spell. Tell the American people that they are a great people who are better than those hucksters who come to divide us. It has a marvelous anesthetic appeal. Swirl down through the clouds of memory and forget that the country allowed itself to follow George Bush over the cliff not merely because it was shocked by the attacks of September 11, 2001, but because it was too pissing-down-the-shoes scared to do anything else. Forget about how eagerly the American people cheered the brutish and the nasty, how simple it was to sell raw animal vengeance dressed up as geopolitical wisdom, and how dumbly everyone followed until well after it was revealed that the people selling it didn’t know enough about the world to throw to a cat. This was the era of complicity. Can Obama end it, thought the cynic, without admitting it ever existed?"

"Why would anyone have faith in America, which is not tough but fearful, not smart but stupid, and not shrewd but willing to fall for almost anything as long it comes wrapped in a flag? Why would anyone have faith in Americans? Barack Obama says that he has that faith because of his own life, because he was able to rise to the point where he can be thought of as president of the United States. He is the country’s walking absolution. That’s his reason, the cynic thinks, but it’s not mine. There has to be confession. There has to be penance. Being Barack Obama is not enough. Not damn close to enough."

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Apocalypse now

Words like "genius" and "great"are thrown about regularly these days, but in the case of Die Soldaten at Lincoln Center Festival, they should be used literally. If you're reading these lines, you are likely to have an interest in the arts, so the message is simple: go.

Every time I'm brought down by one more mediocre, bland, utterly pointless show—they are even more lethal than the truly bad ones—I wonder why I'm putting myself through this rigmarole over and over again. Why, why do I feel the urge to stagger back home at 11pm on that slowpoke F train after one more disappointing evening out? It's because as with everything, your chances of hitting on something good are infinitesimal. Just ask anybody trying to date in New York. The odds are against you, so you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find the one prince—in the arts, something that transports you to another realm. You might call it transcendence, and when you find it, it makes up for all these wasted hours. That is what Die Soldaten provided on Thursday night, when I was lucky to see a dress rehearsal of that mammoth piece.

On paper, Alois Bernd Zimmermann's 1950s opera looks pretty austere, and it is, of course: 12-tone music isn't my idea of an elevator to bliss; add a storyline dealing with the use and abuse of a young woman by various men in wartime, and Die Soldaten had the making of a big spoon of castor oil. Honestly, I think it'd still be that for me without this new extraordinary staging (I can't say I will ever listen to the music at home for instance).

Lincoln Center Festival threw its financial might behind importing David Pountney's awe-inspiring production from the 2006 Ruhr Triennale, in which the audience sits on metal bleachers that slowly move along a gigantically long stage—in our case, set up in the main hall of the Park Avenue Armory—while the no-less gigantic 110-person orchestra sits on the side. (This helpful video preview explains the basic idea.)

As we made our way along the stem of the T-shaped stage, an optical illusion made it seem as if it was the actors who were on a treadmill while we were static. Pountney would place his cast along the whole length, making for an incredible impression of depth of space and even time. But the large scale was only part of the picture: The particular genius of Pountney's concept is that you get both a sense of mind-numbing grandeur and, because the action moves in and out of focus, so to speak, one of crushing intimacy—we were lucky enough to sit right next to the stage and so we were just about eight feet away from the cast at some of the most harrowing moments.

Die Soldaten is an ultra-rare case of a highly conceptual staging that brings everything out of the work and more, transforming the way we even consider the interconnection between art and life. It threw my head into a major Exorcist 360 spin. I'm pretty sure that I forgot to breathe during the last ten minutes, when the gruesome plot reaches its apex and at least four drummers in the orchestra are going at it in unison (the din was so ferocious that I could see the other musicians covering up their ears with their hands). A local director I know was sitting a few rows ahead of us and looked shellshocked afterwards.

Total hardcore!

Friday, July 04, 2008

It's hot in herre

Another post on the SundayArts blog, this time about the singular Nellie McKay, whose debut fronting a swing band takes place on July 8.

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.