Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The End Of The World Does Not Stop Jeremiah From Coming To DVD!

The Good: Excellent story, Good acting, Interesting characters
The Bad: Some real bad blue screen shots, Lack of decent DVD bonuses
The Basics: In a good, if not great, post-apocalyptic world, J. Michael Straczynski creates a vision of people trying to rebuild and the forces that would thwart them.

J. Michael Straczynski is one of three television writers that comes instantly to mind who has a cult following who can usually be counted on for a good time if one invests in the show he has created. Straczynski, like Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams, has built a small army of loyal fans who are devoted to his shows because they trust that wherever they are going, the payoff will be worth it. Straczynski is probably best known for his series Babylon 5 (reviewed here!), which was conceived as a novel for television, spread over five years. It was a brilliant concept that (mostly) worked due to the devotion of fans who committed to the process. And the payoff was, in fact, quite worth it.

Enter Jeremiah, the latest non-Babylon 5 universe endeavor of J. Michael Straczynski, a tale of life after the apocalypse. In Jeremiah - The Complete First Season on DVD, Straczynski establishes a new world, with new rules and a compelling new vision of a post-apocalyptic future that clearly seems to be playing with some to the favored conventions of Straczynski. This is, in other words, a heavily serialized show where everything is building to something and if the viewer is patient and trusts in the writer, it all comes together nicely. And it does.

Jeremiah is one of the few people who survived the Big Death, a disease fifteen years ago that wiped out everyone who had not yet hit puberty. Wandering the countryside looking for the last place his father mentioned before disappearing, Jeremiah encounters a thief on the road named Kurdy and the two soon find themselves paired up and on the run from a common enemy. Fleeing together, they come to Thunder Mountain, a military stronghold staffed by people who have resources and who have grown up living underground.

Jeremiah and Kurdy become scouts for the people of Thunder Mountain, searching for clues to a mystery one of the scouts for the Mountain was hunting down before he was killed. Jeremiah and Kurdy search the American Northwest for clues to the actions of different groups, including the mysterious Valhalla Sector, clues which seem to suggest that another plague may soon descend upon the world, one that no one will survive.

Jeremiah is a very cool, very bleak vision of the future wherein the utter collapse of society has left the world a mess. Death is commonplace and everyone is scarred, having watched the world rapidly degrade following the Big Death. As creator J. Michael Straczynski notes in the scant bonus features, Jeremiah is set at the turning point, where society is basically living off the scraps of the old world and is determining whether it will die or build something new. Jeremiah and the people of Thunder Mountain, embodied by Marcus, their leader.

First off, the story is worthwhile and compelling. There's a realistic sense of degradation to the world created in Jeremiah and the true treasures are things like batteries, underwear, and fresh meat that's not dog. Individual episodes focus on realistic permutations of how the world would slowly reconstruct with various social experiments; a village where no one is allowed to touch, ethnic separation groups, and attempts at utopian societies or pilgrimages. The show vividly creates the tenants of the world before slowly eroding some of them (like the fact that Marcus has a woman in quarantine in Thunder Mountain who is over the age of thirty).

Virtually all of the characters have an emotional immaturity to them in some form or another, which makes sense because they were all prepubescent when their parents died and they lost their role models. So, for example, Jeremiah has a very childlike sense of loyalty and devotion to promises he makes. Kurdy is clearly looking for something permanent in his life because of all the uncertainty he has lived with. And some of the characters, like Theo, are just plain immature, embodied by radical mood swings and rash behavior.

So, we have an interesting plot with interesting characters in a show clearly written for adults; there is mild nudity and a lot of killing, but the language cleans up after the first episode. This is a dangerous world and Straczynski makes it a compelling one quite quickly. In fact, the real problem with the storyline comes from people who are fans of Babylon 5. Straczynski is clearly playing with several of the same elements of "one man can change the future" that motivated Babylon 5. The problem is, he also utilizes pieces of dialogue he used in his science fiction epic, so there's a lot of tongue-in-cheek nods to Babylon 5. Indeed, in the terrible season finale to the fourth season of Babylon 5, there is a segment that focuses on Earth after the Great Burn and it seems like that post-apocalyptic future informed Straczynski's imagination for this series.

The other plot problem is - and I didn't think I'd say this ever about the show when I began it on DVD - it seems to be moving way too fast. Over the course of these first nineteen episodes, a LOT happens. In fact, after a few meandering episodes to truly establish the world, the viewer is put on an emotional roller coaster as the plot ratchets up. Every episode is packed with details to pick up and from the midseason "Firewall" (disc three) the show begins a run toward the season finale and when "Tripwire" comes (disc five) the show is sprinting. Strangely, though, it seems rushed, like Straczynski and his team had to get to a certain point by the end of the season . . . or else. The only advantage I can see is that, based on where the season ended, season two cannot possibly be a rehashing of anything done on Babylon 5.

The other thing that is not rehashing is the acting. Luke Perry stars as Jeremiah and he is unlike the Luke Perry anyone has seen before. A genuine dystopian hero, Perry gives Jeremiah subtlety and depth through an often-quiet performance that resonates with his shrugs, eye movements and the way he emotes rather than declares his character's emotions. He has a surprising amount of depth to play with and here he does it quite well.

Playing off him is Malcolm-Jamal Warner, who manages to give a performance with at least as much gravitas, never falling into the role of simple flunky. One thinks Straczynski or Warner were fans of The Adventures Of Brisco County, Jr. (reviewed here!) the way Warner sometimes plays Kurdy like Lord Bowler! Warner is able to be physical and emote power with his posture and bearing making the role easily as memorable as his prior role on The Cosby Show. Where Perry plays it quiet and tormented, Warner plays it loud and powerful.

The cast is fleshed out by recurring guest stars Peter Stebbings (Marcus) and Ingrid Kavelaars (Erin). But some of the one-shots are even more memorable. Jason Priestley pops up early on as a psychopathic paramilitary. And he's great in the role.

Ultimately, though, the somewhat recycled quality to the show (for fans of Straczynski's works, it's probably a lot better for those who were not fans of Babylon 5) and the lame DVD extras make this a tougher sell. There is a commentary track on the first episode where Luke Perry and Malcolm-Jamal Warner talk about the show (they frequently fall quiet and simply watch it), often buying into the show's mythology ("Even after the apocalypse, you still get groups like this . . .") and providing nothing terribly insightful. There are a few deleted (mostly extended) scenes from the pilot and a featurette about the show's genesis. None of the later episodes have commentary and this is disappointing.

This is a great show for fans of drama, science fiction or post-apocalyptic drama, but it's definitely intended for adults. It requires an attention and commitment that does pay off. Even with its faults, I'm already hunting for season two . . .

For other postapocalyptic views of the future, be sure to check out my reviews of:
The Walking Dead - Season 1
I Am Legend
Battlestar Galactica


For other television reviews, be sure to visit my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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