Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Sci-Fi, Westerns, and Jericho

Well, I started watching this TV show Jericho about two weeks ago, today. Ironically, the day that I started watching was also the day that it was canceled (note that I started watching with the help of Netflix, I did not start with the final episode). And, well, I've been pretty much blown away by how good this show is. In fact, I think it's probably the best show I've watched since Firefly.

For a little background, Jericho is basically from the same genre as tv shows like Lost and Heroes and Battlestar Galactica. In other words, it's a fairly large ensemble cast with a very continuous storyline. All these shows are also sci-fi shows to at least some extent and Jericho is no exception. In sci-fi terms, it's a near future post-apocalypse story.

Now, the primary thing that makes Jericho stand out from the shows I mentioned above is the story. Story is really important to this genre and it is Jericho's story that stands out above almost all the TV shows I've ever watched. To put it simply, if Jericho were a book, I would read it. In comparison, Lost could never function as a book and BSG would just make a boring book. Heroes would be readable, but just okay.

I think having a story that can actually function as a book makes a lot of sense to this genre. These characters are being developed in a very similar manner as a book and they truly benefit from having their stories be told that way as well. For example, I never even finished the first season of Lost, for many reasons, but one of them was that the character development style was really ineffective. Initially, the idea of having each episode be full of flashbacks informing us of the background to that character was fun, but it pretty quickly got old. This was because each character's development had to happen in spurts, rather than over the course of the season. I also pulled out because I started realizing that there would never really be answers to the questions being raised and that things would just get weirder and weirder as the writers tried to keep viewers watching while not actually doing anything (to my knowledge, things are progressing along that path still, but don't quote me on it).

In comparison to Lost, Heroes, BSG, and Jericho all having multiple storylines going, fleshing out as many characters as possible simultaneously. This is how books are typically written as well, because character development should happen concurrently with plot development, not at a cost to it.

In fact, the only episode of Jericho so far that has faltered at all for me was an episode that goes over what everyone was doing the day before the nuclear attacks. Throughout this episode I was bemoaning the fact that this pointless break in the story did nothing to develop the characters (since if you hadn't figured out what the characters were doing prior to the attacks, then either you weren't paying attention, or it didn't matter anyway) and took away the momentum that the story was currently enjoying. Multiple times now, Heroes has also had an episode like this, and every time I scream to the Heavens "Why!?" Because, once again, it hurts the momentum of the story and it wastes our time with information that we either could have figured out without them telling us or which could have been explained in seconds without giving up an entire episode.

But, so if all three of these TV shows are using story properly, then why is it Jericho's story that stands out to me? Because a near future post-apocalypse story is a sci-fi version of a western, and I'm something of a fan of westerns.

Now, Firefly was special because that was a western in a sci-fi setting, but there are lots of sci-fi takes on westerns. The difference between these two ideas, for the record, is not just semantics. Firefly was, first and foremost, a western. It used the language, the imagery, the ideals, even the plots of a western (for example, smuggling cattle). It just added spaceships, but at heart it was a western (in fact, it was a romantic western, rather than a modern day western, or at least westerns post-Unforgiven). In comparison, a sci-fi take on westerns normally has a handful of the ideals and archetypes from westerns and that's all. Star Trek would be a decent example of this (you know, that whole "Space, the final frontier" thing is a very western theme).

Jericho uses a post-nuclear America as the new frontier. In this world, there are such dangers as outlaws posing as lawmen, vigilantes, resource shortages, and just plain ol' desperation. These are all classic dangers in the modern western. Character-wise, we have the prodigal son (with a tragic history and a shady past), we have the mysterious stranger, we have a farmer, we have the town elder (mayor, in this case, but he could just as easily be Sheriff), we have both the damsel in distress and the kick-ass girl, and we even have the child whose been forced to bear responsibilities beyond his years due to the untimely deaths of his parental figures.

It's just, wow. This is a modern western. I mean, compare this setting to Firefly. Admittedly, Captain Mal has the properly sad, almost beaten, past that he hides through a sarcastic and often mean attitude, but otherwise, their stories are more like the adventures of Robin Hood than the lives of people constantly living in hiding due to the risk of discovery by the law. In Jericho, though, the theme is how this group of people is managing to still live human lives even as the world around them is torn apart by people no different from them (that's a theme in westerns, by the way, the way that suffering and desperation degrades people as well as the desire to rise above that suffering).

I love how well westerns can transplant themselves into other genres. For the record, obviously Japanese samurai movies and most old English stories of chivalry are variations on the same themes as westerns as well, so it's not like westerns are even the original westerns (in fact, Mushi-shi is following many of the classic themes of the romantic frontier western, which is probably why I'm such a fan of it as well...not to mention Cowboy Bebop, but that's too easy). I especially like seeing that the maturation of the western genre is also starting to be transferred to those other genres as well. Modern westerns are some of the most beautiful stories of heroics, particularly because they focus on being both down to earth and larger than life at the same time (think of 3:10 To Yuma as a great example of a western that was heavily influenced by Unforgiven, but managed to still be full of the romanticism that makes westerns so touching). And, well, Jericho really has the potential to reach some of those heights.

I hope CBS finds a way to renew it, since I absolutely want to see what they do with the world they've created. I want to see the town slowly fall into the degradation of the rest of the world and I want to see them slowly rise above it. I want to see the prodigal son win the heart of the damsel in distress and I want to see the mysterious stranger prove to his family that he's worthy of their trust. I want to see the town elder eventually die, sacrificing himself to help bring redemption to his town now that his town has forsaken him for a leader who will bring them to violence one day. I'm sure some, or even many, of these things have probably already happened (I haven't even finished season one, yet), but I especially want to see where things go after that.

This show is a really intelligent play on one of my favorite genres and I love what they did with it.

That is all.


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