The Rest is Static: Jericho and the Politics of Nuclear War

Curator's Note

The opening sequence of the pilot episode of the nuclear-war drama Jericho depicts Jake Green (Skeet Ulrich) returning to his hometown of Jericho, Kansas, after a five-year absence. Jake’s absence provides the show with one its ongoing puzzles, but it also establishes the show’s focus on the community of Jericho and the Green family in particular. While the show offers some stereotypical images of Middle America, the scene featuring the detonation of a nuclear weapon is one of the more compelling images I’ve seen on primetime television this year. The sequence evokes Lyndon Johnson’s notorious 1964 campaign commercial, in which a young girl counting the petals of a flower overlaps with the countdown of a nuclear launch, suggesting at least some awareness of the history of representations of nuclear war. It also introduces the ongoing plot device of the electromagnetic pulse that disrupts TV and radio broadcasts and telephone communication, reinforcing Jericho’s isolation from the outside world while feeding speculation about the cause of the explosions. Gradually, the residents of Jericho are able to piece together the knowledge that nuclear weapons were detonated in at least fifteen cities, and subsequent episodes depict them attempting to return to something resembling a normal life, but viewers are offered little explanation for who detonated the weapons, other than vague references to “global tensions.”

Jericho offers an interesting counterpoint to the current season of 24 and its depiction of Jack Bauer protecting America from further terrorist attacks. While 24 seems to suggest that vigilantism works, Jericho complicates this position in subsequent episodes, in part through the depiction of Gray Anderson (Michael Gaston), who is elected mayor by appealing to the hysteria and uncertainty felt in the immediate aftermath of the nuclear explosions. Gray’s tactics are later problematized when an innocent man is nearly convicted of murder and executed without benefit of a trial. While Jericho stops short of completely rejecting Gray’s paranoia, making the show politically problematic, it offers an interesting site for working through what we are willing to accept in the name of national security.

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