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What I Learned About Writing This Week…from Jericho

Skeet Ulrich as Jake Green in Jericho

When it comes to movies and TV shows, I am continually behind-the-times. I grew up watching AFN (American Forces Network, which, as I understand, bought shows from stateside networks. This meant we saw TV shows 6-18 months after they started airing in the US. The delay was only frustrating if you were someone who’d grown up without it.



Fast-forward to today, and I still don’t keep up with shows as-they-air. If I watch TV at all, it’s on Netflix. I guess I’ve got that acceptance and expectation of delay programmed into me now. In keeping with that, I recently started netflixing* the TV show Jericho, which ended in March 2008.

For those of you dear inklings not yet in the know, the title Jericho refers to the small town of Jericho, Kansas. The premise concerns how the people of Jericho deal with the literal and metaphorical fallout of a nuclear attack that destroys 23 cities nationwide. There’s panic and chaos, love and bravery, fear and hate, disease and injury, courage and justice. Oh, and a bratty IRS lady from New York City. (“New York City?!”)

Pretty much everything you’d expect to find in a post-apocalyptic story, you’ll find in Jericho. I am a fan of the genre (in fact, my very first novel was post-apocalyptic, in case you didn’t know), so I’m pretty well hooked into sticking with the good folks of Jericho until they bootstrap* themselves back into some semblance of normal.

Of course, things keep happening that impede the bootstrapping somewhat. A gang of thieves and murderers steals town supplies. High tensions break already-cracking relationships. People don’t want to share food with their neighbors. Brave farmers try to defend their crops from fallout. The weather’s turning cold, and nobody has enough gasoline to run generators. The bar’s satellite TV works but shows nothing except a video of people in a big city, running from a mushroom cloud. Over and over again.

Of course, it all boils down to the question: How can a group of people rebuild civilization after civilization collapses around them?

I’m in Season 2, and I’m satisfied that Jericho‘s doing a good job of answering that question.


Where The Plot Came Tumblin’ Down

As much as I’m enjoying the show, I can understand why it nearly didn’t make it past Season 1 and why it was canceled after Season 2:

  • Shortly after the bombings, a teenage girl throws a big party, even though she’s pretty sure her parents have been killed. This might work as a character development point — except that there’s nothing to indicate she might be throwing the party as an avoidance-of-pain tactic. She and all the other teens act as though it’s party-as-usual. (And there’s no hint as to what’s going on with the other kids’ parents.)
  • Everybody’s hair looks great. Even as generators fail and an EMP wipes out all electronics** — which, one assumes, would include any electronics involved in running water treatment facilities and in pumping water through pipes and into homes — everyone consistently looks showered, well-dressed, and well-pressed. The only exceptions are the folks who looked kind of raggedy even before the bombs, or the guys who’ve just confronted the thieving gang of murderers. Okay, and maybe the nurses at the clinic look a little frazzled…but one episode later, all the women might have stepped out of an Herbal Essences commercial.
  • **An EMP wipes out all electronics…but there are magical generators and cars. These still work great, and they appear as though from a magical, EMP-immune, convenient-car-and/or-generator factory anytime they’re needed. But a little deus ex machina never hurt anybody, right?
  • Nearly two months after the bombs go off, the town holds a mayoral election. Need I delineate why this makes no sense to me?

I Love the Show, I Really Do. But.

Though I am given to easy suspension of disbelief when watching TV shows or movies, there are some things up with which I cannot put.

Sure, every episode presents at least a few small skirmishes between order and chaos — but the writers of Jericho dithered for two months’ worth of fictional timeline before things got gritty on a grand scale. Call me a doom-and-gloomer, but I just don’t believe that a large group of humans can hold back the chaos enough to organize a mayoral election two months after a nuclear attack on everything they’ve ever known.

Picture it: A nuclear bomb goes off 250 miles from where you live. You’re going to stay put? You’re going to take part in a subsequent Fall Festival (yes, there was one of those, too)? You’re going to take a break in your search for food and water in order to fill out a voting ballot?

Um. I dunno about you, but I ain’t.

Get In Late, Get Out Early

If you spend any time at all here at Unstressed Syllables, you know that Aaron and I talk about this concept a lot: Don’t spend time telling your readers a lot of backstory. Get into the action as it’s already happening; explain the backstory in hints of dialogue and characters’ actions; get out of the action before you have to start slogging through some kind of epilogue. If you ignore the get-in-late, get-out-early rule, you are going to lose readers.

Jericho‘s writers ignored this rule, and they lost viewers. Fans of the post-apocalypse genre expect the collapse-of-civilization point to come fairly early on in the story. What these fans are looking for is the bravery, the courage, the depth of character it takes to rebuild after the collapse. These fans are not looking for mayoral elections. Jericho‘s writers took too long to get to the point.

A few episodes before the end of Season 1, they started getting there. They picked up the pace. They stopped protecting their characters and let more things fall apart. I’m already sad that the show got canceled, because I could definitely handle a few more seasons of what they’re offering me now. Alas, ’tis not to be. If only they’d sped things up starting in Season 1, Episode 2. (Episode 1 is pretty awesome.)

So don’t lollygag, y’all. Get in late, get out early. Keep the show on the road, instead of letting it shuffle off onto the shoulder to wash its hair or fill out a ballot. Otherwise, by the time you get going again, you’re gonna be going, going, gone.

And that’s WILAWriTWe.

* While you’re at it, don’t forget to verbify everything! 😉

2 Responses to “What I Learned About Writing This Week…from Jericho”

  1. Patricia says:

    Kudos on the “New York City” Pace Picante Sauce shout-out. 🙂 I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with the show’s woes.