On "Fanboys" and "Jericho"
Two related items:
…is, or at least is supposed to be, about a group of friends who are prompted by a comrade’s terminal cancer to carpe diem by sneaking onto George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch for the premiere of The Phantom Menace.
The script was highly acclaimed when it floated around Hollywood a few years ago, and the film stars likes of Seth Rogen and Balls of Fury‘s Dan Fogler. It’s apparently in the can over at The Weinstein Company, and has been for awhile — except that Harvey Weinstein hasn’t want to release it because he thinks the “cancer subplot” is too controversial to be a commercial success. So instead, he has redacted the film, re-shot scenes, and produced a non-cancer version.
Apparently, Star Wars fans have reacted, sending 300,000 e-mails. As a result of the backlash, both versions will be released.
The last episode Jericho aired tonight on CBS. I’ll spend more time here, because while I haven’t seen Fanboys I have seen all twenty-nine episodes of Jericho, and I happen to think it’s had some of the more gripping, original and poignant serial drama I’ve seen on network TV. (Though admittedly, I have neither seen The Wire, nor Lost.)
We meet citizens of Jericho, Kansas as they putter along in the troubles endemic to modernity: a dissolving marriage, a ne’er-do-well son edging past thirty with no sign of responsible manhood, a struggling farm facing government foreclosure — until the spectre of nuclear attack blazes suddenly and soundlessly over the horizon, and everything falls into stunned silence. Thereafter, Jericho’s residents face confusion, in-fighting, lawless roads, Blackwater-esque mercenaries, food shortages, fires, spies. You name it.
It was spooky and suspenseful and it had compelling well-developed arcs of all shapes and sizes. Gradually, over the weeks, the disaster purified the characters, shunting them through one challenge after another — and, one by one, made them heroes.
The scenario deftly brought morality play to the stage without preaching. (Well, without incongruously preaching, anyhow — but one of the cool things about post-apocalyptic fiction is that it is, almost of necessity, a study of civilization itself.) There was political commentary, and it undercut the pre-fab partisan angles that have obfuscated things in our own political mainstream. Jericho met the worst fears of the post 9/11 world by holding them in the nuanced light of essential American values. “Defend yourself, and defend what is you love,” it said, “Fight the just fights. But stay in your heart. Because as soon as you give in to cruelty, or fear, or selfishness, you make your world that much less worth defending. And what you lose, you might not ever get back.”
More than anything, Jericho seemed to say that everything that we call “the world” can collapse, but if people remain decent, and brave, and reasonable and kind, then the end of the world, frankly, isn’t the end of the world!
Like any network TV show, obliged to deliver a compelling drama a week over the duration of the season, was occasionally dorky, but endearingly so, and I for one didn’t mind a lick. I grew to love the characters so much that when their actors sometimes cheesed through a scene, I forgave them the way you might forgive a bunch of your buddies awkwardly rendering play in a local theatre production.
Also, I didn’t care because it was all not only extremely charming, but exciting as hell.
It really had everything but the kitchen sink, and it really did all of it compellingly. By the time they rolled into the story arc that culminated at the end of the first season, I was rapt, voracious. Frankly, if you’re skeptical, I’d recommend you rent the first DVD and see for yourself. Watch the first four episodes or so, and see if it hasn’t hooked you by then!
As the canon goes, Jericho was canceled, the fans rallied, mailed twenty tons of nuts to the CBS offices, and eventually after a dogged grassroots campaign, the show shot seven new episodes which began airing right after the writer’s strike.
These new episodes fell heart-breakingly short of the first season. They were shallow, rushed, much more conformed to “safe” sensibilities. They had abruptly leapt into a new scenario, a logical succession to the earlier story, but radically different in tone. And they’d left much behind. These episodes were a second audition for America, and they felt like it. They felt like a frantic seven-week Hail Mary, a frenetic, showy juggle. The poise and and the pace, the mood and the depth had gone. And it got canceled again.
Why? After all that work? Well, according to media blogger Geoff Berkshire, after weighing all the evidence, it’s because too few people wanted to watch it.
But who cares? It was GOOD!
In mellower decades, promising shows were allowed to marinate over a few seasons, to find their legs, or their niche, to unfold and, thereafter, to shine. It’s often said that some now classic shows would not have survived in the current ratings climate. Today, a show either sinks or swims — right away. And Hollywood isn’t much different. Last year, Sly Stallone ventured that Rocky might have been passed over today. Rocky!
Even in the awkward second season Jericho seemed to be finding its stride in its new scenario. As a town under military occupation in the midst of a re-construction, Jericho, Kansas had become a theatre to observe Americans wrestling with circumstances that harkened to the daily trials of 24 million Iraqis. That’s fertile soil, no? Surely the haste in these seven episodes was the result of shell-shock from the first cancellation? Right? Surely these episoders were a lesser, telegraphed, version of the first season because of the pressure to “make it,” to fit an acceptable mold, to survive?
There are those who still believe that Jericho can and should live again. A new grassroots effort, “Save Jericho — The Sequel” is afoot, seeking a new home for the series. Buzz is that both SciFi and the CW may be interested. (My vote is for SciFi; I have so little interest in the CW shows that I didn’t even know that it was no longer the WB.)
But if you wanted to get involved, here is a link outlining some helpful actions.
Meanwhile, note a common theme in the two cases here:
I don’t think one has to scratch too hard to find examples where territory that might best be the domain of the artist has instead been appropriated by the ethos of the market — and while art must dare, capital is a coward. So we end up with things like a Hollywood system that is now re-making every popular horror movie from my childhood, and otherwise highly interested in brands, franchises, and adapting commercially successful stories from other media. But in the cases of Fanboys and Jericho, two original artistic visions, stymied because of marketing concerns, have been defended by popular movements that found muscle in their numbers and — constructively — flexed it.
I happen to think there is more to be said about effective grassroots organizing. And, potentially, a lot more.
In the case of Jericho, I hope the momentum persists. May this unique and now vagabond show find a new home at SciFi (and there… uh, live long, and prosper?)