You might not have felt any fallout so far. But TV dramas are unleashing a nuclear arsenal.
Consider “Jericho.” When this CBS hit premiered last fall, the good people of Jericho, Kan., were shocked by the sight of a mushroom cloud rising in the distance. “Our Town” meets duck-and-cover. And that was just the premiere.
Resuming Wednesday at 8 p.m. EST after a three-month break, “Jericho” loops back eight weeks for a glimpse (as the show puts it) “Before The Bombs.”
That’s “bombs,” as in: more than one. Indeed, viewers will get a partial look at the bombers’ to-do list: Not only Denver — the target of the blast seen from Jericho — but also Washington, Philadelphia, Dallas, St. Louis and Chicago. Plus Los Angeles and New York, as if to compound the damage other series are plotting.
L.A., of course, has been nuked by “24” already this season, with maybe more to come. And on “Heroes,” New York remains in grave peril: A bomb is due to go off there in two weeks, blowing the city to smithereens.
So the hits just keep on coming, while we’re invited to sit back, relax and enjoy the show as our fellow Americans die by the tens of thousands, and while the nation seemingly is brought to its knees.
What’s going on here? Is TV ushering in a new brand of escapism: dramas that assault us with no promise of escape?
Are we thumbing our noses, week by week, at the apocalypse?
Are we having fun yet?
Leftover Cold War fears
Sparked by our real-life, modern-day jitters, TV’s “bombs away” fare harks back to the fright uniting Americans in the 1950s and ’60s — a collective fear that Cold War archenemy Russia would drop the Bomb on U.S. soil and ignite World War III.
Of course, the world-ending potential of the Bomb (back then, it was respectfully capitalized) gave everyone comfort along with alarm. The prevailing doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD, for short) held that if each side could respond to a nuclear attack with sufficient force to finish what the other side began, then neither side would dare start anything.
A gentlemen’s agreement between global superpowers, this policy of overkill-as-deterrence was mad all right. But it obviously worked. Neither side pushed the button.
Now, Americans’ anxiety (seen clearly at the mention of the term “WMDs”) is of a more free-floating kind. No wonder. Today, lots of countries have the bomb. So do lots of terrorists with itchy trigger fingers — or that’s the message of TV drama, anyway.
Granted, on “Heroes” (which airs Monday at 9 p.m. on NBC) the bomb that threatens New York is of uncertain origin. On this mystic thriller about ordinary people with extraordinary abilities, the bomb could even turn out to be human: one of these hapless “heroes” with a weird gift for exploding.
But on “24” (Monday at 9 p.m. on Fox) the bombs are convenient, suitcase-size warheads. And once again, counterterrorism whiz Jack Bauer is putting in the hours (24 of them) to handle the crisis.
The past five years, Bauer (along with the nation) has been rocked by nuclear bombs, bioweapons and a nerve gas attack. But there has been nothing on the scale of this season’s carnage. In the nine hours since this 24-hour cycle began, one explosion left more than 12,000 dead. And terrorist mastermind Abu Fayed is still packing three more nukes, with 15 hours left to explode them.
As if that weren’t enough, a White House coup is in the works to assassinate President Wayne Palmer, who, in the eyes of the conspirators, is giving civil liberties a higher priority than the nation’s defense.
Everyone is scared or mad
Frightened citizens of Jericho have a similar concern. They voted out their beloved longtime mayor, Johnston Green, in favor of rabble-rouser Gray Anderson, a shoot-first-ask-questions-later type.
“I love this town. I just want to keep it safe,” said Anderson (Michael Gaston) when he won. “Like it always was.”
“What it always was,” retorted Green (Gerald McRaney), “is a democracy. That’s easy when things are going all right. But when you’re scared or mad, it gets to be a lot harder.”
Most everyone in Jericho is scared or mad. Short of food and fuel, answers and hope, the community grapples with the realization that it’s cut off from the rest of the country, and that most of the country is in chaos or ruins.
On Wednesday’s episode, four dozen tattered men and women trudge into town after wandering for weeks.
“I can’t imagine what you’ve seen out there,” a woman says to one of them, who numbly replies, “I couldn’t have imagined it either.”
What “Jericho” imagines — and “24,” too — is an America where life has gone wrong and can never be made right.
This is a bleak place for a series to call home. And also a bleak place for viewers who watch it, as they reject the psychic payoff most dramas provide: reassurance that, on balance, life will turn out OK.
Sure, a little harsh realism can be a welcome change in TV drama. But isn’t all this bombing bumming you out?