New York Post January 29, 2007
WHAT'S that on the horizon? It's a mushroom cloud -something we haven't seen this often on TV since the Cold War.
But this season, mushroom clouds are back as TV taps into our worst fears - namely, terrorist attacks with nuclear weapons - and makes them real.
"I think that's what we're all afraid of," says Carol Barbee, executive producer of "Jericho" on CBS. "We're all afraid that some crazy person will get hold of a bomb and will blow up the United States."
On her show, that's exactly what happened, though the details of the conspiracy have yet to be revealed. "Jericho," starring Skeet Ulrich and Gerald McRaney, is the series about a town in Kansas whose approximately 5,000 residents have survived a nuclear attack that wiped out at least eight major cities and probably more. (New York is not one of them, Barbee assured me on the phone from L.A. last week.)
"Jericho" is the nuclear-destruction champ so far this season, but catastrophic explosions have also been glimpsed on "24" and "Heroes." One nuke has gone off (so far) on "24"and the blast seen on "Heroes" is positioned as an event prophesied for the very near future. Whether or not it actually takes place depends on whether the heroes of "Heroes"can prevent it.
The season's first mushroom cloud was seen last fall in the premiere episode of "Jericho"as the citizens of Jericho witnessed the apparent destruction of Denver on the far western horizon.
This explosion will be seen again when "Jericho" resumes its season next month after a 10-week hiatus. The episode - titled "The Day Before" - explains what some of the show's characters were up to in the 36 hours leading up to the bombings.
The Denver tragedy is seen from a distance, a perspective Barbee feels is necessary for telling such a terrible story.
"There was a lot of concern when we started out that the show would be too dark or that people wouldn't want to watch it because it would be too frightening or this is not something people want to think about,"she said.
"Our story is not told in the middle of Denver, ground zero," she says. "It's told in a town that was safe from the blasts and they watched it from a distance. And yet they see from a distance something that is obviously going to affect their lives."
In "24," however, the dirty nuke that detonated in the southern California community of Valencia was viewed from up closer - just a couple of miles - by the show's anti-terror superman Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) and, by extension, us.
The yet-to-happen blast seen on "Heroes" is even closer - in the middle of a large city (possibly New York) just blocks away.
So, why nukes and mushroom clouds?
To put it bluntly: Because people are afraid of them. And TV people are not shy about admitting they're trying to scare people.
"Certainly we're trafficking in fear - that's the point," said Joel Surnow, executive producer and co-creator of "24," in an interview last week in the London newspaper, The Guardian. "If the show's not scary, we haven't succeeded."
And why now?
Barbee feels it's not just the rise of terrorism.
Part of it is that the sight of nuclear holocaust is not really all that unfamiliar anymore.
"The two events that we look to when we're writing the show are 9/11 and Katrina,"she said. "Both of those events showed us that we could watch what looked like the end of the world on television."