From October 23, 2006 Vol. 168 No. 17
Pop culture’s latest visions of mass destruction feel eerily intimate
By JAMES PONIEWOZIK
Posted Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2006
Does anyone really fear dying in a nuclear blast? In my atomic nightmare, my family survives. A flash of light across the East River in Manhattan; a tremor and roar; a column of flame. Then the questions. Do we pack up the kids and flee? Duct tape the windows and hope for help? How much food is in the pantry? How strong are the locks on the doors?
This morbid fantasy just became a little more plausible. Pariah state North Korea’s purported test of a small A-bomb spotlighted the morbid fantasy of our age: the small-scale, survivable Armageddon.
Even a relatively tiny bomb by nuclear standards might kill hundreds of thousands. But it could leave millions in the same city alive, panicked and beset, and the U.S. changed irrevocably.
And not only neurotic urbanites are willing to imagine what comes after; high and mass culture are on a postapocalyptic kick. Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road is an unflinching tour of an America rendered barbaric by a fiery cataclysm that ends most life on earth. NBC’s Heroes depicts Manhattan destroyed; on Sci Fi network’s Battlestar Galactica, billions die in a nuclear attack. And the most unlikely fall hit, CBS’s Jericho, has more than 11 million people a week tuning in to visit a Kansas town that survives a nuking that has incinerated untold U.S. cities (taking, presumably, your local CBS affiliate with them).
If there’s a common thread to these disparate works, it’s their intimacy. Jericho, for instance, gives us doomsday as soap opera. The postapocalyptic tales of the cold war–On the Beach, A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Day After, Threads–were books and movies that had conclusions; a TV series is open-ended, like life. Jericho doles out its horror in doses–flickering TV images of ruined cities, radiation victims dead by a lake–and softens it with soap-opera B-plots. The survivors have affairs and family fights; teenagers flirt and throw parties. Chicago may be burning, but somewhere on the Great Plains, The O.C. lives.
Still, Jericho is trying to do something serious: to ask what apocalypse would do to the humanity of us who survive. That is also the question of The Road; its answer is tougher to take. A father and son trudge across a wasteland of burnt trees and skeletons, evading murderers and cannibals. The evil control most of the weapons and scant provisions; the good have, literally, been eaten away. Grim as The Road is, it’s more anguishing emotionally, as the ailing father struggles, out of a febrile love for his son, to keep the boy and hope alive. As opposed to The Road Warrior, it’s heartrendingly realistic, a masterpiece but nearly unbearable. It is also No. 4 on the New York Times best-seller list.
Clearly there’s a hunger for insight, however painful, on the end-time fears particular to our time. The cold war stories could pin the disaster on a simple East-West showdown. The new apocalypses are more shadowy, less ideological. In Jericho, we do not know who attacked or why. In The Road, the cataclysm may have been war, or it may have been an asteroid strike. Who would do this? you might ask these works. Terrorists? A superpower? Americans? God? Their unspoken shrug: Any. All. None. Pick a number.
Here is, I hope, a kind of pack-a-go-bag practicality to this mini-craze. Mass destruction, after all, has been the animating bogey of American politics for more than five years, but we haven’t really thought through what, on a human and social level, it would mean. Could we survive? Would we want to? Would we pull together or feed on one another? That millions can handle the question, in literature or a soft-focus made-for-CBS version, may be testament to our willingness to face the times–to put ourselves mentally, for a while, where Dick Cheney lives 24/7.
That’s the charitable explanation. The more disturbing one is curiosity, fatalism, even, at some level, a measure of acceptance. We need to face our darkest possibilities. And yet, looking at Jericho’s ratings, I have to wonder: Do I want America to be this comfortable with the apocalypse? In Jericho’s yet-unseen outside world, millions of people in cities like mine could be incinerated, starving or in anarchy. But in at least one small town, life goes on, to a pop sound track, without us–without, in fact, much time or verbiage spent mourning us. Sitting in sight of the Manhattan skyline, I would say that’s the scariest story of all.