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By Darren Johnson

Campus News and Nu2U

I find that the night classes I teach have students who are more and more cynical about the work world.

Case in point is the straight-to-video, low-budget “Tenure” (2009), starring Luke Wilson, that recently hit Netflix and finally found a home. It’s up to four stars and recently was in the Favorites queue. Before that, the movie mostly floundered around – a couple of film festivals and practically no buzz anywhere. It also had an unsuccessful run in the Blockbuster chain as they were going Chapter 11. There are no legitimate reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, even.

Thus why “Tenure” is the perfect fit for this column, “It’s New to You!,” the only column in America devoted to finding hidden gems on services such as Netflix.

I mentioned this film briefly to my students, as the basic plot – about a college instructor trying to get tenure (basically, a job for life) at a second-tier college – seemed to relate to the topic at hand that night: employment. “Why would anyone want that?” said one student, referring to the permanence of tenure. Other students tended to agree that the idea of it seemed silly in this day and age.

(The basic philosophy of having any job that has a virtual lifetime guarantee is that one can then have the intellectual and financial freedom to do one’s work without outside influence. Other such lifetime positions are Supreme Court Justice, Pope and Queen of England.)

But the students saw tenure as a type of prison. Stuck in one job. Stuck with 1-2% raises. Stuck in the same place. I explained that many professors also open side businesses, and they seemed happier with that knowledge.  Today’s students are much more entrepreneurial, and they know there are no jobs for them where they will get a gold watch and a golden parachute after 40 years. And they don’t want to be Mr. Chips, anyway.

Thus the conundrum that Wilson’s English professor character, Charlie Thurber, faces. He finds himself teaching at his third school, Grey College, after two previous runs where his tenure was denied. Approaching midlife, he also faces pressure from his father, who was an Ivy League tenured professor.

Comic relief is delivered by social sciences professor Jay Hadley (David Koechner) who, at the beginning of the film, goes before the tenure committee himself. He runs the campus Bigfoot Club, a geeky group that goes on field trips looking for the mythical character.

Thurber is an excellent teacher, but doesn’t get published in the obscure journals his colleagues seem to get published in. He is lousy at playing politics at stuffy dinner parties. In the faculty lounge, a female professor accuses him of having peed on the toilet seat in the faculty bathroom. The department chair also brings in an attractive, tenure-track professor from Yale (Gretchen Mol), further playing with Thurber’s mind. Hadley plants a “stolen” can of Coca-Cola on her in the lounge, accusing her publicly of taking it from the faculty fridge.

Laurence Peter once wrote, “Competition in academia is so vicious because the stakes are so small.” That could also be the theme for “Tenure.”

The movie comes down to whether Thurber will be offered tenure, and, then, decide if all of the concessions he has to make to get there are worth it. Either way, a secondary story line is with his demanding father, who is starting to suffer dementia; will Thurber at least come to terms with him?

This is a poignant, perfect movie for the small screen. Nicely paced and thought provoking. Surely worth the 89 minutes of your time.

End of the World With a Positive Spin
I’d watched the two-season series “Jericho” on Netflix last year and been meaning to write about it. It’s still on the streaming service.

Maybe I hadn’t taken the time to write about it until now because it’s a good series, but, compared to all of the end-of-the-world dramas and movies out now, it’s not a great series.

But, at only 29 episodes of about 43 minutes each, you could definitely marathon watch this in a short amount of time. What reminded me to finally review this series was seeing Lennie James on a recent episode of “The Walking Dead.” He is a key player in “Jericho.”

“The Walking Dead” is obviously much better and has a much bigger budget than “Jericho” did – because “Jericho” wasn’t doing well in the ratings when it ran in 2006-08, the episodes vary widely and season 2 diverges a good deal from the first season. Season 2 delves more into geopolitics and conspiracy theories.

But “Jericho,” which did run on CBS, was merely ahead of its time, entering the post-apocalyptic genre a bit too soon. As I’d written about in a previous column, such works tend to do better when the overall economy is worse – like now.

The basic premise is that several nuclear bombs are detonated in the USA. Jericho is a Midwestern town between some major cities that were hit. It loses power, so the people in the town have little clue what is happening in the outside world. Some of the domestic terrorists also filter in and out of the town. But what makes “Jericho” different is that most of the people are relatively good and try to help each other out. Some people are clearly opportunists and profiteers, but, overall, most of the characters mean well.

This is a different take than practically every other work in this genre. In “The Walking Dead,” other clans of humans are more dangerous than the zombies. In “Falling Skies,” some bands of humans sell kids to the aliens. In “The Road,” most humans have become cannibals. The prevailing theme is, once government collapses, most people revert to some primitive state. But not in “Jericho.” The local pols continue to try to keep order and people tend to look out for each other. There are some evil outside forces, though, and the question remains, how long can the little town hang on?

Where Jericho seems weakest is with its main character, Jake Green, played by Skeet Ulrich, the prodigal son of Jericho’s mayor. He never seems deep or developed enough to turn this into a landmark series. We never feel his angst. I guess he is more the type of actor one would see on a major network like CBS; someone who looks good on a poster. Nevertheless, “Jericho” is worth the watch if this type of popular, end-of-the-world genre has piqued your interest. Add a point if you like conspiracy theories.

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