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folderiexEpisode 2: “Fallout”

Oh, right, fallout. That thing we forgot about in the first episode. The thing that makes nukes more than just aesthetically terrifying clouds in the distance.

This is a tight, fearful episode. A storm is coming from Denver, and not knowing what kind of bomb went off, the people of Jericho are terrified of what those clouds may bring down upon them. Emily is still outside of town, clueless as to what has happened. She meets the two escaped criminals (oh yeah, that happened) who are impersonating deputies, and who have killed the sheriff and kidnapped Deputy Jimmy and Deputy Occasionally-Mean Guy.

I hate when apocalyptic fiction goes straight to “oooh, rogues are on the loose because society has broken down!” if only because a nuke is a lot more interesting than a dude with a teardrop tattoo. However, Emily versus the fake cops works better than it might. It’s drawn out tension, which is enhanced when she brings the men to the Richman ranch (girl, cops do not have mustaches like that — but it’s a neck tattoo peeking out that gives it away) and has to communicate with Bonnie in subtle signing that this is a problem. Plus, we have two relatively competent ladies here, which is nice.

This episode does signal two obligatory difficulties for our characters in a nuke setting. Cons on the loose, and the invisible peril of fallout. But though we don’t know everything about the show yet, we do already know that this isn’t Testament. This is a CBS show. It’s going to be about network TV-level of grim survival, not about slowly wasting away. And, you know, a tv show needs characters.

In short, though the episode is well done, and though people might die, this episode doesn’t give you an apocalyptic stomach ache. Just a little anxiety, and a touch of claustrophobia as the townspeople race to get their shelters ready, and Bonnie and Emily try to casually outwit the cons.

Back in Jericho, there’s a great scene where the cops have grabbed every single book about nuclear anything from the library, and one is Our Friend the Atom (“some friend” notes Gray Anderson bitterly). Hawkins again knows a little too much about what do in case of nuclear fallout — or he’s read this manual I keep almost buying because of its perfect balance of creepy and cheesy graphic design — but his explanation is only “I was a cop in St. Louis, and after 9/11 we got up to speed.”

The town’s shelter doesn’t have a working air filter, and Gray Anderson will definitely be using that in his weird macho war with Mayor Green. For once, he may have a point. Actually he has one a lot, but he’s still annoying.

Towns people are taking stuff from Gracie’s store, but she stops Skyler from grabbing a diet soda (asserting her property rights, while still accepting that emergency food is being taken! Gracie is also kind of the town gossip and sort of unpleasant, but she’s not a villain, and Dale has a serious loyalty to her. All of this is interesting to me.) This leads to Dale and Skyler bonding in her sealed up house. Dale slept on Gracie’ store floor the night before, because he clearly has nowhere else to go now that he hasn’t got a mom. Skyler may not have a mom anymore either, and a sad conversation about that as the fallout-drenched rain falls brings the nerd and the mean girl closer together.

This is the first episode where Jake being in charge is assumed. Basically, this town cannot function without male Green leadership. No wonder Gray Anderson is tired of it. Hawkins is told to fix the HAM radio, and finds secret messages, then says he can’t get the thing working. Much mystery. All the mystery. We see Hawkins’ family for the first time, as they huddle together in the basement. They are not entirely likable, but they are intriguing. There is clearly tension between the son, the daughter, the wife, and Hawkins. Hawkins’ wife Darcy tells him “you always know something” and he says not to ask questions. What does he know? Is he a terrorist? Law enforcement? CIA? NSA?

Most of the scenes of people packing up bags with 90 minutes to spare are good. And the scenes of other townsfolk sealing up their houses is deliberately very early War on Terror. It’s definitely less excessive than the 9/11isms in the 2005 War of the Worlds, but it brings back mentions of how to be safe from a dirty bomb or chemical attack, if you’re the right age.

Eric — the insufferable junior version of his father — has to lecture a bar full of douchebags to go to shelter so they don’t die of radiation sickness. Good thing he has a flaw, which is his affair with the uninteresting Mary, who owns the bar. Eric’s wife isn’t interesting either.

(Somehow I hate a lot of these characters when I stop to think about, but I keep on watching. Actually, Jake may be an asshole who disappeared for five years, but I don’t blame him.

Basically, everyone is annoying except for Jake and Bonnie, and usually Heather and Stanley, but I feel like I need to apologize for finding Skeet Ulrich slightly attractive.)

Finally, realizing there just isn’t enough shelter for everyone in town, Jake decides to put people into the salt mines just in time. He, however, has heard Emily using the police radio to call for help. Which annoys me, because girl, you know nukes have happened. You’re not helpless, and are in fact quite savvy in your standoff with the cons. So you do have the capacity to realize that if Denver has been nuked, police don’t give a shit about your personal peril. Really, this is all just so Jake can come and save the day. One of the cons grabs Bonnie, Jake shoots the other con. Emily shoots the one who has Bonnie, and then she stands catatonic, so that Jake must hustle her into the Richman’s storm cellar. Unfortunately for this plot and later ones, Jake has much better chemistry with the painfully peppy brunette Heather than he ever will with sad Emily.  I mean, they flirt while in peril and it almost works.

Instead, we get Jake saying he wanted to keep Emily safe, but she says she’s “never safe when you’re around.” So, to reiterate, both Jake and Hawkins are mysterious people. And Emily is a school teacher, so that means she can shoot people, but then feel awful about it. This is — and Heather’s random technical skills — is the extent of female competence on the show. We’ll get to that, once it becomes truly tedious. So far, things are just fast-paced and stressful on the show. And that’s working very well.

The final scene — pop song propelled yet again — shows townspeople in the shelters, and then Hawkins putting pins into various cities. It sure looks like the nukes hit more than just Denver and Atlanta. (Oops, Pittsburgh was one. Pittsburgh AND Philly? Musicians can’t handle visiting both, how can nukes?)

folderiexIn which I bravely begin to rewatch the 2006-2008 cult, yet also CBS TV show Jericho, so as to always have Tuesday Apocalypse fodder in the weeks to come. The show stars Skeet Ulrich, Lennie James, and other luminaries, but don’t hold the Skeet part against it. Also, there is going to eventually be libertarian subtext, but you have got to be patient.

Episode 1: “Pilot”

Jericho begins with a Killers song, which might be the dealbreaker for some of you folks. But it’s one of the catchier ones. And, as we follow Jake Green (Skeet Ulrich) driving from San Diego to home in Jericho, Kansas, the band’s semi-nonsensical lyrics hint at the plot to come. “When there’s nowhere else to run/Is there room for one more son?…the cold hearted boy I used to be/ I got soul/but I’m not a soldier.” Angst! Prodigal son! It works! It’s the mid aughts!

And technically, actually, the show begins with its eerie, minimal theme music, and the sound of morse code. That’s the show for you. Forever warring between legitimately unnerving and “emotions must be propelled by pop songs.”

Jake pulls into town, and meets several of our main characters before he makes it to the old family home in order to claim his inheritance. There’s the goofy farmer Stanley Richman (Brad Beyer) and his stern sister Bonnie (Shoshannah Stern), who is deaf. There’s the frustrating and blonde Emily (Ashley Scott) who is The Ex. Jake gives a different answer each person who asks where he has been for the past five years. We know he’s either a pathological liar, or he’s ashamed of something. There’s also the moderately annoying IRS agent, who is auditing the Richman farm, but she isn’t much of a character yet.

Jake’s mom is Leslie Knope’s mom, though much less bad-ass in this role. His dad is Raymond Tusk on House of Cards. His bearded brother Eric (Kenneth Mitchell) is married to the local doctor, but having an affair with the local tavern owner. Oh, and Johnston Green — the dad — is also the mayor of town, and has been for 100 billion years.

We also meet Dale (Erik Knudsen), employed at the town busybody Gracie’s store (she is starting to doubt your commitment to sparklemotion).  And we see his crush, mean girl Skyler, who will soften later. We meet the cops, the most prominent being Jimmy (the goofy one) and the other guy (the douchey one). And we meet new in town Robert Hawkins, who just drips with mystery.

Having realized his beloved grandfather is dead, Jake decides to leave town sans inheritance. (I was never quite sure why people didn’t tell him in earlier scenes. I suppose when he tells Stanley and Emily he’s there to visit, they must think Jake just means visit the old man’s grave. But only TV cuts justify the jump from family home to grandfather’s grave.)

And then our build-up begins. TV, radio, and cell phones go out. The music is horror-delicate and menacing. Deputy Jimmy’s son is the first one to see the mushroom cloud. He’s playing hide and seek with his sister, and has climbed onto the roof, and we see his back to the camera as he stares aghast. His little sister, whining a little, says “no fun, Woody, you have to hide better.” Here the show has the sense to show a little kid first in dumbfounded horror, then in tears. You don’t need to know your Cold War history intimately to know that you should weep if you see a mushroom cloud.

On the highway, Jake sees the cloud with his wide, Skeet Ulrich eyes and crashes into another car full of similarly distracted people. A woman named Heather (Sprague Grayden) — who will immediately begin dancing the line between endearing and annoyingly cute Mary Sue for the rest of the series — sees the cloud while we only see the reflection in the school bus window. She is on a field trip with a bunch of pipsqueaks who will soon need protecting. At the Richman ranch, Bonnie stares transfixed from her porch, until her brothers pulls her away.

It’s all fantastic. All beautifully shot. It’s restrained, but palpable sickness. Something unimaginable has happened, but it has happened far enough away that everyone is physically fine, making it all the more surreal.

The rest of the plot involves the town freaking out a bit, trying to get organized. We see a power struggle between Mayor Green and a guy named Gray Anderson. Hawkins (Lennie James) knows a lot about preparing for something like this, which might be a little odd.

And basically, Jake has to hobble away from his own car wreck, and go save the school bus that has crashed due to acute “holy shit, a nuke-itis.” He apocalypse-cute-meets Heather, and saves all the children, and even performs a tracheotomy on one. He returns to town to find a curtly proud father, and a very relieved mother. He has truly returned home now.

In the mean time, poor teenage Dale has come home to a terrifying message left on his answer machine. His mother, seemingly vacationing with her gross boyfriend, had called to check in, but the message cuts off with “oh my God! What is that?” It’s clear wherever she is has been hit by a nuke as well. A scene where Dale listens to the message over and over again in the dark is correctly awful. So is the moment where Dale comes to a neighborhood meeting with the news, and needs to clarify that his mother was not in Denver, but Atlanta. We now know that two bombs have gone off.

The safety of Jericho is too safe. The brief panic is too CBS primetime, though at least the townspeople have their moment of it. Nobody — arguably since Threads and The Day After in the 1980s — really has the guts to portray pissing yourself levels of terror, or catatonic horror in response to nuclear strikes. And I think that’s how a lot of people would react. Even the heroes should have a moment of dumbfounded stillness. That’s why I love the pilot to The Walking Dead, and the first half of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. In these stories, even the strong patriarch needs a moment to express, than rise above, his bafflement and fear. Unfortunately, slightly tiresome patriarch Mayor Johnston Green isn’t given quite enough of that moment here. And his wife’s dread-cry of “Oh, Johnston” isn’t quite nuke-horror. It’s more like the dog got hit by a car level of upset. One can argue that there’s good eye acting (see the extras in Titanic as the stern sinks, for a perfect example) here, but it’s still a bit too subtle for my taste.

On the other hand, Jericho is supposed to be in a sweet spot. Everyone is safe, and until starvation or fallout, or other end of the world threats some a-knocking, perhaps a dazed sort of disconnect is believable. This is only the first day.

We have had too many inspirational speeches (though one that fails) from the mayor and from his rival Gray Anderson, and too much TV logic, but we also have two mysterious men, family drama, and moderately interesting side characters in a small town dealing with the unimaginable. Not bad.

Though the woman who plays the one that got away from Jake is one of the weakest actresses on the show — and their chemistry has never been there, ever — her final scenes in the pilot are good. Her character Emily has missed it all. She was driving to pick up her fiance in Wichita, and only when birds begin falling from the sky at dusk does she realize something is terribly wrong. The final scene leans too heavily on a moody pop song, just like the opening scenes did, but the camera pulling back on bird armageddon is a good capper for the episode.

Don't be these guys.

Don’t be these guys.

“The Shelter,” season 3, episode 68: air date: September 29, 1961

One of my criticisms of apocalyptic fiction — particularly the alien invasion or nuclear war variety — is that most characters are not hysterical enough. For example, the early aughts CBS show Jericho, which was all about a small Kansas town surviving after 25 cities are nuked, was enjoyable and disturbing, but nobody was ever upset enough about the situation. The very first shot of a faraway mushroom cloud is seen by a little kid standing on his roof — and it’s just killer. But five seconds later, after only the kid being shown in tears, that’s it. No adults are crying, no adults are hysterical in the nightmare way that I truly believe they would be. Not that civilization would crumble, or people would eat their children in five minutes, exactly, but that in the initial moments and days of nuclear war — even in the face of a visible mushroom cloud — people would flip. Even if they later rallied, the toughest among us would break down to some extent.

The Twilight Zone is not known for its realism — social commentary notwithstanding — perhaps because old TV shows are inherently a bit theatrical to youthful eyes (or to cranky people like my father).

Burgess Meredith the bookworm is eventually suicidal after he survives the H-bomb attack in “Time Enough at Last,” but he’s still impossibly mild-mannered about it all. “Time Enough at Last”  is a classic episode for a reason, but I don’t fully believe his reactions after the world is gone. The Rod Serling-penned episode “The Shelter” — in spite of some dramatic, necessarily dated elements, and some showing, and then telling — works better.

We see that Dr. Bill Stockton is throwing a dinner party, with his wife and three other couples. A warning comes over the radio that unidentified objects have entered US airspace.  Stockton, who has previously been teased for his doomsday preparations, has a fallout shelter in the basement. The other couples run home. Stockton and his wife, along with their nauseatingly chipper ’60s son, gather supplies. There’s an eerie conversation between Stockton’s wife and himself about the point of survival at all after the missiles come. The actress (Peggy Stewart) does a fabulous job, not hysterical, but displaying a bleak, tearful terror that shows she has already given up just from imagining the world that is to come. Stockton (Larry Gates) is not quite as good, but his sweaty, wide-eyed determination to save his family still rings true enough. He’s all masculine, reasonable panic.

The true conflict arises when one by one the couples come back, some with children in tow, begging to be let into the shelter. They have no basements, or they have half-finished ones, or they simply know that Stockton has a shelter and they do not. They plead, they cry, and Stockton grimly says there isn’t enough air or supplies. Every single person with dialogue sells this episode. There are no women to be slapped back into sense, no men who have everything in hand, there is just barely-contained desperation that explodes.

And the way they turn on each other — AKA, the topical commentary of it all — mostly works. Half of them preserve their humanity fairly well, the worst man goes from zero to xenophobic — turning on the sympathetic, desperate mustached guy — and he also has the bright idea of breaking down the shelter door. This mob, with some protests from the two half-reasonable men, does so. The viewer will note that everyone crowds in once the deed is done. (No mention is made of the fact that they have doomed Stockton and family, and still not saved themselves through this idiocy.)

The moment they are inside the shelter, the radio says the objects were just satellites. There is a palpable sense of shame in the air, again done well. The final speech from Stockton — wondering whether something besides a bomb destroyed them that night — is not fully necessary. Nor is the Serling tag that says the only moral here is that “for civilization to remain, the human race must remain civilized.” This was already there for the teaching, without the postscript.

Contrast “The Shelter” with “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” — another Serling classic — and you can see the former is vastly superior. Written at the height of the Berlin crisis, it feels credible, in spite of the aforementioned moral lampshading. “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” is the story of another block dissolving into suspicion, fighting, and hatred. But they do this simply because the power is out and a few strange things are happening. Much of the dialogue feels clunky, and the episode cannot be watched today without it feeling like a hamfisted anti-McCarthyist screed. The end result that it’s all been an actual alien experiment in inducing paranoia — something the aliens feel the need to highlight, though it was clearly already shown to us — doesn’t make the conflicts feel any more believable.

And the ET subject matter isn’t the problem. Move “The Shelter” to an imminent alien invasion, and it would feel just as true, and the barely-contained terror radiating from the actors would still impress. I am an optimist about human nature, but we were told to fear fear itself for a reason. It does bad things to us. Serling, more subtle than average, shows this nicely in “The Shelter.”

 

Don't be this guy either.

Don’t be this guy either.

“One More Pallbearer,” season 3, episode 82: air date: January 12, 1962

Another Serling-penned episode, this mostly exists as a character study of an awful man. The setting is a bomb shelter and the stage is set for a would-be practical joke. Millionaire Paul Radin (Joseph Wiseman) invites three people from his past to come to his lair, and has readied a fake Civil Defense warning and a television screen with bomb footage to make them believe that nuclear war is now.

Present are his former highschool teacher, his former military commander, and a reverend, all of whom he has decided wronged him, but we see that only in his arrogant, nasty impression of how things were. Unfortunately for Radin, they all believe his trick, but after unpleasant conversation (the teacher is particularly good and cutting, she’s played by Katherine Squire), each one chooses to leave the shelter instead of begging his pardon, and to let them stay. This is all Radin wanted, but they won’t do it. They face annihilation rather than apologize to him — or rather, they are not interested in living out their days with an awful man in his awful, doomsday kingdom.

They leave, and he yells at their backs, and then rather abruptly he seems to lose his damn mind. The audience is waiting for a twist, and Serling plays with that expectation — maybe a nuke will really happen just at this synchronistic time! Nope. Radin has just snapped. His Twilight Zone fate is to be nuts and to believe he is the only man left after nuclear holocaust. The message here isn’t so much remain civilized in the face of the greatest imaginable horror, but don’t be a dick, otherwise people will let themselves be melted rather than spend time with you; this makes it a bit less satisfying an entry in the nuclear terrors Twilight Zone canon.

Burgess_Meredith_The_Twilight_ZoneWelcome to The Stag Blog’s new series dealing with portrayals of the end times through movies, novels, docudramas, documentaries, instructional pamphlets and films, songs, and memories. The focus will mainly be on nuclear fears during the Cold War, but we may branch out into some asteroids, aliens, or plagues. Let’s keep it loose.

Guests posts are particularly welcome on this subject — give me your best nuke movies, your memories of hiding under desks, or your childhood (or adult) worries over alien invasion.

This week, I was planning to write about On the Beach — the original movie, and maybe the novel and the 2000 remake in passing — but instead I thought I would talk about two Twilight Zone episodes that deal quite differently with nuclear annihilation. Be warned, I had many classic Twilight Zone episodes spoiled decades ago by many classic Simpsons Halloween specials, but I’d rather not be the ruiner of even 50-year-old TV shows. 

Forgive the lateness of the hour, but remember the Andy Warhol joke about going to Pittsburgh in the event of nuclear war — everything, you see, comes to Pittsburgh five years late.

Time Enough At Last, season 1, episode 8

You know this one, or you know a parody. This is one of the most famous Twilight Zones — maybe the most famous not starring William Shatner (who was actually in two episodes, on a sidenote!). This is the story of poor bank teller Henry Bemis (Burgess Meredith) who seems good-hearted, if frustratingly absent-minded, and is the world’s biggest bookworm. A bookworm, but nobody in his life will let poor Mr. Bemis read. His boss’s scolding is one thing, but Bemis’ wife, portrayed with oddly-masculine coldness by Jacqueline DeWit, is simply sadistic. Who did she think was marrying, if not a be-speckled Burgess Meredith who only wants to lose himself in Dickens, poetry, and any other literature? I don’t think her husband was ever a dynamic, suave individual. Her fault, then, if she’s now unhappy. Indeed, you could write a whole story about Mrs. Bemis and what made her so cruel. The scene where she pretends to be interested in her husband’s poetry book is her peak of small, but sharp horribleness. The fact that he really believes she might be interested after God knows how many years of marriage is a testament to his infuriating fuzzy-headedness, perhaps, but his face when he sees what his wife has done to his book — blacked out every single word on every page — breaks the heart.

That scene is why the most upsetting part of this episode is not the destruction of everything. Yes, Mr. Bemis goes down to the bank vault and therefore survives what seems to the end of the world (though there must have been a few more people going into basements at just the right moment). The empty, H-bomb-wrecked world is a little tidy in it’s carefully-placed rubble, like a film set. But the producers did well for the times. It looks pretty bad, it looks well and truly destroyed. And Bemis has been portrayed and remembered and parodied as a character who is bothered by all the people around him, but he doesn’t suddenly adapt to this new, empty world. He is after all not really an introvert, so much as someone who needed time to read, and then meet some folks who shared his love of books. Didn’t they have book clubs in your time, Mr. Bemis?

Anyway, Bemis tries to cope. He talks to himself a little, finds some food, and mourns. Eventually, he very nearly commits suicide. With a pistol to his temple he tells himself he’ll be forgiven, considering the circumstances. Then he sees the books in the ruined bits of a public library! Suddenly it’s all turned around! After a few minutes of hopeful scenes where Mr. Bemis gathers enough stacks of books to keep him going for the next several years (assuming that rain and snow has stopped existing; find some shelter, Mr. Bemis), we get to the final, oft-parodied scene where Mr. Bemis breaks his glasses. In my case, breaking glasses would hinder my survival, but not my ability to read. Still, Bemis is probably doomed now. But worse still, it’s not fair. There was time now!

There is often justice in the twilight zone, but not always. Mr. Bemis didn’t deserve his fate, but irony chose him.

And the nuclear destruction is only incidental. The real tragedy is that what he asks for is so simple, and he doesn’t get it.

But at least his horrible wife is dead, I guess.

Third From the Sun, season 1, episode 14

Since the twist in this episode is much less commonly-known, I will again warn that readers wishing to remain unspoiled should proceed with caution.

I’m a connoisseur of well-crafted dread in movies or television that deals with subjects as heavy as nuclear war or worlds’ ends. It’s only so-so for most of this episode, perhaps because the character mostly speak of feeling it in the air. There’s a lot of tell, and the show of it is confined to Dutch angles and tight shots on nervous faces. It’s not unsubtle, but since the plot is fundamentally horrifying, I demand nothing less than soul-crushing. And it’s just not that. (Maybe the Richard Matheson short story it’s based on is that — I’d like to read it.)

The main character in “Third From the Sun” is Will Sturka a father who works at a military base on horrible weapons; we also see his wife, his teenage daughter, and a couple where the husband, Jerry Riden, works at the same plant, but on a secret spaceship. The antagonist is the boss,Carling, who seems to be a true-believer of striking first and watching what you say and think in such times as these.

What times? Well, the end times. Or nearly. Sturka and Riden know it’s coming. They plan to gather their families and flee. Their cover is an evening card game, during which Carling stops by briefly. Then there’s a whole lot of charged dialogue where everyone knows everyone else knows, but nobody says anything. Carling leaves, and the two families head for the base to steal away on the craft Riden has been building. At one point we learn that there has even been talk of other planets that contain people not unlike our characters. Riden and Sturka and their families hope to head for one.

When they reach the base, Carling is there — naturally — but the teenage daughter actually helps to save the day by smacking him with a car door.

We see that the ship looks an awful lot like a UFO, and we either get it now, or we don’t. The final shot is Sturka and Riden discussing how the ship is holding up (well), and if they can really image that there are people like them on this distant planet they’re flying towards. It’s third from the sun, and it is called Earth.

Is this a throwaway, “he was dead the whole time?!” type of ending? Perhaps, but no more than other Twilight Zones, which often dealt with the question of who was the real alien in various scenarios. (Man is of course, the real monster in all cases.) And in a greater context of Cold War terrors, it strikes a more effectively sinister note than all previous dialogue about man destroying man, and all the fear in the air; because if the same insane scenario of weapons build-up and worldwide suicide is happening on this other planet, what hope is there for little old Earth?

Walter M. Miller’s brutal and wonderful A Canticle for Leibowitz says humans will utterly destroy themselves not once, but over and over again through the course of thousands of years. With its twist ending, the more flawed but still thoughtful “Third From the Sun” suggests the same pattern can repeat across the galaxies. So much for Klaatu or other aliens coming to save us from our deadly impulses. Things are just as bad up in the stars.