You know, I had a lot of really good ideas about how I was going to discuss Jericho. I was going to talk about how the complexity and the density of the show made my normal reviewing process of talking about it all at once seem downright silly, and how I was seriously tempted to do a minute-by-minute (let alone episode-by-episode) reaction. I was going to talk about how it expertly depicts flawed characters, about how that show is filled with these juicy, chewy individuals who send you round and round in moral circles until you go blind. Hell, around the end of season 1, all I wanted to do was marvel at the sheer ambition of this show, of how relentlessly it tackles stories and issues and themes, how it basically says, “Okay, let’s tell a story about life in a small town in post-apolcalyptic America and not pull any punches at all ever because we like to see our audience suffer mwa ha ha.”
But we’re not going to talk about any of those things, because SWEET SUMMER CHILD THAT WAS THE MOTHER OF ALL CLIFFHANGERS. LITTLE BABY CLIFFHANGERS LIE AWAKE AT NIGHT WISHING TO BE HALF THE CLIFFHANGER THAT ONE WAS. THAT DIDN’T EVEN LEAVE US HANGING OFF THE EDGE OF A CLIFF, WE WERE HANGING OFF THE EDGE OF THE FREAKING EARTH. CBS, I WILL HUNT YOU DOWN FOR CANCELLING THIS SHOW. I WILL HUNT YOU DOWN AND DESTROY YOU, AND YOUR FAMILY, AND YOUR LITTLE DOGS, UNTIL THE GROUND ITSELF OPENS WIDE AND SWALLOWS YOU IN ITS FIERY DEPTHS.
Um…maybe I should have waited a little longer after watching the last episode to write this.
Okay, before I start yell-typing again, here’s what we’re going to do: we are going to talk about how downright tiring this show is. It is physically exhausting to watch. It is emotionally draining. There were frequent points where I had to simply pause Netflix and walk away from my computer. I mean, put it this way: it was a season and a half long, and I was on vacation. Normally, I would marathon this in a few days, and it took me three weeks to watch. Jericho is so intense, so relentless, that just getting through it is a completely active experience.
To be clear, this is definitely meant as a compliment. There’s just so much going on – so many beautifully drawn characters, so many multi-faceted plot points, so many impeccably crafted moments that simultaneously make you punch the air (or, in my case, my bedroom floor; that poor carpet took so much Jericho-related abuse) and break down crying. I can’t even express how much I love that this show doesn’t present anyone as right or wrong, good or bad – they’re just a lot of decent people in a situation of unthinkable horror with no idea what to do. (For the record, this is how you create flawed characters. Someone should probably let Stephanie Meyer know that “clumsy” does not a character trait make.) Every situation in this show just feels like it’s about one ill-timed sneeze away from spinning wildly out of control, and so it’s a testament to the its storytelling that the show itself feels so masterfully guided. Or, in other words, even as the characters got closer and closer to the precipice of hell, I never doubted the storytellers.
And I don’t mean to suggest that Jericho is just overwhelming, because there are some beautiful quiet moments as well, of humor and grief and pride and camaraderie. I know that I tend towards depressing stories (I told a friend that I was enjoying Jericho, even though it was depressing as all hell, and he corrected me that I was enjoying it BECAUSE it was depressing as all hell, which I couldn’t argue with) but this show can make a sad moment sting like almost nothing I’ve ever seen. The choice to (highlight for SPOILER) juxtapose Eric and April’s wedding with the day Johnston dies is possibly the most sadistic means possible of getting through that particular plot point, and I loved every minute of it. The contrast between Jake’s best man speech and his attempts to rally the troops, the evidence that Johnston really was proud of him, Jake’s two dead father figures joking as they walked into the distance – I wanted to hug the show and I wanted to pummel it at the same time. It’s just that this show knows so well how to ground itself in its humanity, how to let us feed on the softer moments to deal with the harder ones, and it knows how to enjoy the quiet moments while making sure you’re always aware that they won’t last.
Because let’s be real for a moment – this is a show that deals with the literal end of the world as we know it. It needs something to ground it. And I have to admit, it took a few episodes to win me over, but this wasn’t the show’s fault. See, I’m used to apocalypse stories in the vein of I Am Legend or Zombieland, where, sure, the end of the world sucks, but who doesn’t get a little romantic thrill out of being the last person alive? I mean, that’s the allure of zombie movies, isn’t it? No rules, no obligations – just keep yourself alive and play with all the toys of a deserted civilization. Jericho…doesn’t let us do that. Instead of indulging in a child’s fantasy, it actually asks what would happen if a small town was cut off from society, how they would deal with the realities of limited fuel, food, and medicine, how they would maintain order and what they would do when faced with other survivors, and, well, it’s bleak. But it’s also fascinating, and the show’s perpetual motion (it’s incredibly serialized; each episode feels more like a chapter than a self-contained story) explores every inch of the premise.
Before you ask, of course it’s not a perfect show. I have…mixed feelings about Skeet Ulrich. On the one hand, he knocks some moments clear out of the park; on the other, there were points, especially in early episodes, where I half-expected the camera to pull back to reveal poorly-drawn cue cards. In the end, it doesn’t really matter, because I love the character so much (a total badass whose past is actually troubled – more please) and Ulrich does get better as the show goes on, and ultimately justifies giving him some of the weightier emotional moments. Plus, he’s pretty damn good with the nonverbal stuff, which makes me think he might just be one of those speechless wonders, able to convey an entire argument with a blink but who should never be allowed to talk.
And yeah, there are other issues, obviously there are other issues. But the thing is, I didn’t care. It’s not so much that all the other stuff going on distracted me as that the other stuff was done so very well. It seamlessly combined issues of leadership and loyalty and maturity and love with endlessly imaginative plot twists, fantastically compelling characters, and some damn fine storytelling. I remember when I talked about The Man From Earth I mentioned how ruthless it was in attacking every possibility of an idea, and I’m reminded of that attitude when watching Jericho. If there is a side to something – whether a narrative premise, or a moral issue, or a character – this show will find it and explore it, and it doesn’t care in the slightest about comfortable conclusions.
Am I surprised that a show this obscenely ambitious was cancelled after thirty episodes? Well, I’m not an idiot. And I’m also not fool enough to place any credence at all in rumors that Netflix is trying to revive the show. (I’ve been burned before. I still refuse to belive that the whole Arrested Development thing isn’t some hugely elaborate hoax until I am actually sitting in front of a screen watching the episodes. And even then.) But even though it does end on that dastardly cliffhanger (seriously, CBS, I will find you where you sleep), it’s not worth avoiding the show just to avoid the ending. This is, basically, some of the best storytelling I have seen in years, with incredible characters and a satisfyingly challenging ideology, and I defy you to find a better use for twenty two and a half hours. And then come find me, and we can work on our plans to destroy network television executives, and finally get that season 6 of Firefly we’ve all been waiting for while we’re at it. (Seriously, stop killing everything that I love.)