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Reviewed by Will Harris
any of us look back fondly on the 1980s as nothing more than a time of day-glo colors, one-hit wonders and kitschy movies, but the truth of the matter is that it was also a time which was often fraught with anxiety. And not just because I was in my teens. All you had to do was turn on the nightly news to be regularly reminded that the U.S. and Russia were in no way the best of friends, which meant that nuclear Armageddon was a very real possibility. Because of this, one of the most disturbing few hours of my teenage years occurred on the night of Nov. 20, 1983, when ABC aired “The Day After,” a TV movie that theorized how America might find itself on the receiving end of a nuclear attack, and, more importantly, how awful the repercussions of such an event would prove to be.
Fast-forward to 2006. CBS announces that it will be offering up a weekly drama entitled “Jericho” and provides the following description:
“Things are quiet and peaceful in small-town Jericho, Kansas, but when a baffling explosion – one shaped suspiciously like a mushroom cloud – occurs in the distance, toward Denver, Jericho's residents are plunged into social, psychological and physical chaos. No one knows what to think, and fear of the unknown takes over the town, especially because its isolation cuts it off from outside help. When nearly everything they know seems gone, will the residents of Jericho band together to face their unfamiliar and mysterious new world?”
It might’ve been 23 years since the trauma of “The Day After” had been inflicted upon a nation, but the comparison to the film was certainly not lost on either critics or viewers. Would a series about the effects of a nuclear bomb dropped on U.S. soil, and the search to discover the events which led up to the bomb being dropped in the first place, be embraced by a nation still reeling (at least to a certain extent) from 9/11? And perhaps more importantly, given the serious topic, exactly how hard-hitting a series were we to expect from an 8 p.m. timeslot? Jon Turteltaub, Stephen Chbosky and Carol Barbee, the executive producers of “Jericho,” created a thoroughly enthralling pilot episode. The show’s first 60-minute segment served to introduce the residents of Jericho, Kansas, allowed the viewers to share the shock and horror of the townsfolk as they watched a mushroom cloud suddenly appear on the horizon, and set up a scenario where mysteries abounded and uncertainty reigned.
In short, it was pretty awesome. Unfortunately, after following up on the pilot’s promise with a strong second episode, things started to go slightly awry as the producers decided to move away from the darker themes of the show and into exploring the interpersonal relationships between the various residents of Jericho.
It stood to reason that they’d be doing this to a certain extent, of course; you’ve got to be drawn into what’s going on with the characters if you’re going to care about a series. The Green family – Jake (Skeet Ulrich), his brother Eric (Kenneth Mitchell), Eric’s wife, April (Darby Stanchfield), and Jake and Eric’s parents, Johnston (Gerald McRaney) and Gail (Pamela Reed) – are certainly the heart of the series. Johnston’s the longtime mayor of the city, Eric’s the deputy sheriff, April’s a doctor at the local hospital, and Gail…well, Gail’s just a good old-fashioned homemaker, but she’s a former nurse, which comes in handy after the bomb drops. Jake, meanwhile, has been absent from town for five years, after having spent time doing God-knows-what, and his return causes tension within the family. Eric soon does his fair share of that as well, once it’s revealed that he’s been having an affair with bartender Mary Bailey (Clare Carey). Other major characters include Gray Anderson (Michael Gaston), who’s battling Johnston for the position of mayor; farmer Stanley Richmond (Brad Beyer), who’s developing a relationship with Mimi Clark (Alicia Coppola), the IRS agent who’d come to repossess his farm before the bomb dropped’ and, perhaps most importantly, the mysterious Robert Hawkins (Lennie James), who appeared in town right after the bomb and who clearly knows more than he’s willing to reveal, both to the residents of Jericho as well as to his own family.
We’ll stop here with our roll call, but let it be known that these are in no way all of the character; there are half dozen others who have major storylines, with still more who pop up on a regular basis. In all fairness, most add considerably to the flavor of the town; the problem was in trying to make “Jericho” into more of a soap opera than its premise needed. The schmaltz alarms were going off on a weekly basis, and it felt like the writers were more interesting in catering to traditional stereotypes than offering up a suggestion of how real people might react to their situation. (My personal favorite line from a blog entry on the show: “I’m already over the teenage characters of the series; anyone who’s still concerned about social status and maintaining their cliques after the bomb drops deserves to die of radiation poisoning.”) After six episodes, there was every reason to believe that the series wouldn’t make it out of the season alive, and there were fewer and fewer reasons to care.
In the seventh episode, however, there was a turning point for the show, as we were finally provided with more insight on events going on outside of Jericho: finally, someone realized that you can only stay insulated within the town for so long before wanting to explore the effects that the bombings have had on the rest of the area, not to mention the rest of the country. Unfortunately, just as things were starting to take off, CBS decided to pull a “Lost” and let the show sit in oblivion for a few months, only to bring it back later as an event of sorts. Even more unfortunately, the show hadn’t developed enough of a diehard following for its viewership to return en masse. The worst part about it was that, in the second half of the season, “Jericho” finally began to find its groove. In fact, from Episode 1.16 all the way through the season finale, it was unquestionably “Must See TV.” Which, of course, is why it was cancelled.
As we know, however, “Jericho” was resurrected, and it will indeed be returning come the beginning of 2008. If you’re looking to investigate the series prior to that but don’t want to take the time to watch the entire box set, we’d recommend renting Discs 1, 5 and 6. The first four episodes are plenty enough to set the stage, and the last two discs are gripping all the way through. Shame about the hit-or-miss nature of the episodes in between, but let this much be said for the series: it’s a concept that few would ever expect to see as a weekly drama, and if it doesn’t succeed more often than it fails, its successes are more than sufficient to make one glad it made it on the air -- and to look forward to Season Two.
Special Features: There are two featurettes. The first, “Building ‘Jericho,’” provides an in-depth look at the origins and development of the series, while the second takes a real-world look at the threat of nuclear war and its ramifications. Additionally, we get deleted scenes and several commentaries, with executive producers Jon Turteltaub and Carol Barbee teaming with each other, as well as with cast members Skeet Ulrich and Lennie James.