Every fall, I await with a certain amount of dread the influx of new shows about doctors, lawyers, cops and forensic examiners. Since the success of serialized dramas like “24,” “Prison Break” and “Lost,” however, networks have started to think slightly outside the box. This season, for example, we’ll be seeing a whole host of hour-long shows in which people have careers beyond “the big four.” The shows (like NBC’s “Heroes” and ABC’s “The Nine”) seem intent on inventing unusual situations in which to place their cast of characters. That’s no guarantee of quality, of course, but it holds at least the promise of something fresh.
Among CBS’ contributions to this new breed of situation-based dramas (let’s call them “sitdrams”), is the series “Jericho.” The situation, in this case, is the fight for survival in post-apocalyptic America. Sounds exciting enough, but don’t get your hopes up for carloads of Mad Max-inspired action.
Things begin quietly enough with 32-year-old Jake Green (Skeet Ulrich, Scream) returning to his tiny hometown of Jericho, Kan., after a mysterious five-year absence. Turns out Jake is the black sheep son of the town’s mayor (Gerald McRaney, a little hard to cozy up to after his vicious turn on the last season of “Deadwood”). After a quick run-through of all the usual prodigal son activities (tearful reunion with mom, angry fight with dad, brief run-in with now-engaged ex-girlfriend), Jake decides to skip town once again. Unfortunately, his plans are sidelined by a huge mushroom cloud blooming on the horizon.
In short order, communications are cut off, power is dead and the townies are freaking out. Is this the start of World War III? (Those ominous news reports about the president and “world tensions” would lead us to believe so.)
“Jericho” plays like a serialized version of the 1983 TV movie The Day After (except there doesn’t seem to be any radiation) combined with the 1996 theatrical thriller The Trigger Effect (except the townspeople’s “let’s all go nuts and turn on one another” moment only seems to last about two minutes). The big drama in the first ep revolves around an elementary school bus full of kids that has gone missing. Naturally, Jake finds it and brings it back. Crisis averted.
For a series about surviving the aftereffects of a nuclear attack that may or may not have wiped out the entire United States, “Jericho” is awfully low-key. The pilot’s biggest moment of tension revolves around that most cliché of TV operations, the emergency tracheotomy. (“I need a pen!” screams our hero Jake, who has conveniently learned the procedure from a stint in the military--or from watching any TV medical drama ever produced.)
“Jericho” tries to pump up audience emotions with its sentimental piano score and selection of sappy pop ballads, hoping to lure viewers into caring about how small-town America bands together to survive a crisis. But there’s just not enough reason to give a damn about any of these hastily drawn characters and their retro-’50s bomb-induced isolation. Go hunt up a copy of Panic in the Year Zero! instead.