Set in the fictitious town of Jericho in northern Kansas after unknown terrorists have detonated nuclear bombs in 23 American cities, effectively destroying the federal government, Jericho takes the time afforded by TV as opposed to cinema films (which it was originally conceived as) to develop some complex, highly credible characters and plots. From Skeet Ulrich as leading protagonist Jake Green and the mysterious Robert Hawkins, played by British actor Lennie James (currently appearing as Morgan Jones in The Walking Dead), to Easi Morales as a conflicted army Major and Pamela Reed as Jake's family matriarch, there are numerous powerful performances aided by scripts that flow naturally and with some humour alongside the nuclear night. Notably, the growing relationship between farmer Stanley Richmond, his sister Bonnie and girl friend Mimi Clark is one of the most empathetic subplots to have graced TV.
But underlying the series of disasters, threats and triumphs encountered by the people of the little town, the story is a powerful exploration of some major political themes that had already taken hold of the USA when it was originally broadcast a decade ago, and which are now coming to a possibly Faustian climax in the elections of this current year.
For, without giving the plot away, the terrorists who have nuked the USA are not the obvious post-9/11 suspects and the "Axis of Terror" involving Iran and North Korea is debunked early on. But looming large is the corporate takeover of democratic government and the corruption of politics by populist demagogues. In the 22 episode long first season, this is less apparent - it manifests itself mainly in the arrival in town of mercenaries from the Blackwater-style Ravenwood Security Company, which murders and loots in its wake. In the shorter, tighter and significantly more political second season, Ravenwood's parent company, the Jennings & Rall Corporation (see its fake website here!) emerges from the shadows as the moving force behind a breakaway Allied States of America.
|Lennie James and Skeet Ulrich as Robert Hawkins and Jake Green|
But equally important is the small stuff - the way the townspeople pool their resources and support each other, and welcome refugees in spite of the shortage of food and power. And, conversely, when the chips are down, how an attempt by a young storekeeper to profit from scarcity is given short-shrift and money no longer matters. To be sure, in uncertain times, we do see a "well-regulated militia" understandably arm itself against the dangers of the unknown, but when the neighbouring town lapses into Tea Party vigilante-ism, the people of Jericho respond by downing their own weapons to stay true to civilised values. It is a survivalist tale, but it takes on the would-be survivalists and shows them to be nothing more than angry, hollow men, scared and empty of any true values.
The series was cancelled in the second season, but was given the chance to reach some endings and this becomes evident in the elevated pace of the final three or four episodes. However, this paradoxically heightens the urgency of the plot and doesn't particularly detract: the slower first season had built up both the story and characters well enough, and in many ways it ends at the right moment, although for true fans there was a brief continuation in the form of some graphic novels.
Jericho takes on both the corrupt realities of the contemporary neoliberal world and the fantasies of the libertarian alternatives - showing how completely each crumple into barbaric nightmares. Instead, the underpinning theme is that, deep down, most people want to do good by each other, and we do that best when we stand together - even, and perhaps most of all, in the worst of times.
Jericho is currently available on Netflix.