Picture This

Watching the End of the World

2/14/2007 7:18 AM

Over the next 10 weeks or so television viewers will have several chances to watch what life is like after a nuclear blast.

On Fox’s 24 series each Monday night, series hero Jack Bauer runs around trying to save the United States from not one, not two, but five potential nuclear bombs, one of which has already been detonated in sunny California.

On Wednesday nights beginning this week, CBS starts up new episodes of its underrated drama series Jericho. In that skein, the local bad boy turned town savior Jake Green tries to keep peace within the town while protecting it against aggressive outsiders trying to take the town’s few resources. Oh, did I forget to mention this all takes place in the backdrop of a nuclear attack that has seemingly wiped out just about every major U.S. city except New York?

Then on Sundays, Captain William Adama tries to salvage what’s left of mankind on Sci Fi Channel’s Battlestar Galactica after man-made robots toasted human civilization with a nuclear explosion three seasons ago on the show.

I, like millions of other viewers, am a big fan of all three shows. But while I’m jazzed to watch these shows straight through May, my wife doesn’t share my enthusiasm. While she’ll sit and watch each show with me, for the most part she’s indifferent to them because they deal with depressing subject matters.

Like the end of civilization as we know it.

And I can understand that. Yet viewers of these shows are willing to take an hour-long peek at what life would be like after the mushroom cloud – no cell phones, computers, hot and cold running water or, in the instance of Battlestar Galactica, no earth under your feet.

Fox’s 24, last year’s Emmy winner for best drama, is among the top 10 most viewed shows for the 2006-07 television season. The show is averaging 15 million viewers. Jericho is one of the surprise hits of this year’s freshman class of drama serials.

Battlestar Galactica, which just last week received liftoff for a fourth season, is Sci Fi Channel’s most-watched scripted series, averaging more than 2 million viewers since its return last month.

Why do we love shows that look into the eye of the apocalypse? Syracuse University professor of pop culture Robert Thompson and other industry observers have said that viewers have an innate fascination in viewing larger than life events that extend well beyond the boundaries of their own lives.

From the Japanese-produced, atom-bomb inspired Godzilla flicks in the 1950s to A&E’s top-rated Flight 93 and other post 9/11 projects recounting the U.S. terrorist attacks in 2001, we as viewers — right or wrong — like to look right into the heart of darkness through our big screen TVs.

Through these shows, we can face our own frailties and sense of helplessness regarding the real-life terror events currently going on in the world — just as long as we can push the TV off button and go to bed when we want to.

Along with that, I have another theory as to why these shows are successful. 24, Battlestar Galactica and Jericho are popular with viewers because they’re well-written shows. Not every show about a disaster befalling the country or the world has been successful.

Just ask ABC Family.

The network’s Three Moons Over Milford series didn’t last long enough to see the earth actually bite the dust, as was the underlying premise for the now cancelled dramedy.

But if you have a good plot, well-developed characters that viewers either love or hate and a surprise or two stuck into the script, more likely than not people will watch.

Now if you will excuse me, I have to watch Jack Bauer try to defuse a suitcase nuke in 10 seconds.

That’s compelling television — and whether he succeeds or if California is blown off the face of the map, I’m comforted by the fact that there’ll be another episode next week.

And that’s enough reality for me.