“Jericho” returns from the dead Tuesday, and it nearly cost Brad Beyer his life. He was racing along Los Angeles’ lethal I-405 freeway when he got the message that CBS, three weeks after canceling the series, had changed its mind and was bringing “Jericho” back for another season.
“I was in my car, checking the voice-mail on my cellphone, and there was a message from co-star Skeet Ulrich that CBS was going to keep us after all,” Beyer remembers. “I almost ran off the expressway.”
But, like the character he plays - a farmer in the little town of Jericho, Kansas, which is struggling to withstand the chaos following a massive nuclear attack on America by terrorists - Beyer survived. Now he’s hoping the show will, too. “We’ve been off the air since last spring, but I hope the fans come through for us,” he says. “They did before.”
They certainly did, bombarding startled CBS executives with 25 tons of canned peanuts (a play off a scene when a group of nuclear survivors responds to a demand to surrender with a single word, “Nuts!”). The network’s unprecedented revival of a canceled show was just one more chapter in the unlikely story of “Jericho,” a drama about nuclear war whose peculiar mix of soap-opera romance and Oedipal family intrigue leavened with tales of starvation and radiation poisoning has attracted the most fanatic audience on television.
And the unlikeliest part of all may be about to unfold: “Jericho” is just about the only winner of the ugly writers’ strike that has paralyzed Hollywood for the past three months, driving most original TV programming from the air, putting 11,000 people out of work and costing $1.8 billion.
“I know it sounds like a heartless thing to say - this strike has been so terrible for so many people - but it may turn out pretty well for us,” says Beyer. “But that’s what we’re hoping.
“We’ll be one of only a few shows on the air with new material. We hope it will help us.”
“Jericho” itself will be something of a tattered survivor as it returns at 10 p.m. EST Tuesday. Stripped of two-thirds of its planned episodes, much of its budget, and nearly all of its writing staff and production crew, the show had to reinvent itself for this season.
In some ways, says Carol Barbee, one of the show’s executive producers, that’s made “Jericho” stronger.
“We definitely had to make an adjustment,” she admits. “But I think it’s been a blessing in disguise. Before we were canceled, we had already pitched the season two story lines to CBS. It was going to take place in three cities: Jericho; Cheyenne, Wyoming - where a military-oriented American government is based - and New York, which survived the terrorist attack. At some point in the season, the three stories would have dovetailed and become one.
“But then we found out we were going to have less money, less writers, less cast, less everything. So we decided to tell one just one, in Jericho, and cram a 22-episode story into seven episodes. This season, something “huge” happens every week. It goes like wildfire. It feels more like a miniseries.”
That means “Jericho” will drop or compress many of the soap-opera elements - adulterous romances, family jealousies - of last season and concentrate on the big picture. Barbee promises viewers will learn more about the nature and motives of the mysterious terrorist group that launched the attack, and get a clearer picture of what’s left of the United States outside Jericho. It won’t be pretty - two rival governments, the one in Wyoming and another in Columbus, Ohio, are vying for control over a decimated landscape, often with heavy-handed tactics.
“Last season was about the aftermath of a nuclear attack in our small little town,” says Barbee. “Season two is about the country and saving a system of government and a way of life. It’s about occupation, resistance and then revolution.”
There will even be glimpses overseas - it turns out that the U.S. government, initially believing that the nuclear attack originated in another country, launched some strikes of its own. When Barbee revealed that during a press conference with foreign journalists to promote “Jericho” in the international market, she learned that the fanaticism of the show’s viewers knows no borders. “They were all saying, `Gee, couldn’t you work in a nuclear attack on my country?’” the bemused Barbee recalls.
If the problems with story lines were easily resolved, some of the others weren’t. When “Jericho” was canceled, its four top writers signed contracts with other shows, and nearly the entire production crew moved over to another CBS show, “Cane.” None of them could get out of their deals to return when “Jericho” was renewed.
Meanwhile, budget cuts meant “Jericho” had to slash its cast in half, from a dozen regulars to six. But several stars accepted smaller deals to appear in fewer episodes, and in the end, only one - Gerald McRaney, whose town patriarch character was killed in last year’s season finale - won’t return.
Beyer will remain a full-time cast member, and his character Stanley Richmond - a farmer who was nearly bankrupt even before the bombs started falling - will continue his unlikely romance with Mimi, the IRS agent who was in town to seize his farm for back taxes when war broke out. They’ll even get engaged (though Barbee also warns that “there will be a big surprise”).
Beyer generally thinks “Jericho” is realistic - much more so, he says, than “The Day After,” the 1983 nuclear-apocalypse TV movie that scared him so much as a little kid - but he admits that he has trouble thinking of an IRS agent as a romantic partner outside of a TV script.
“I guess I might marry one in real life if I fell in love with her,” he muses. “Or if she was really “hot.” Then adds, quickly: “I should note that in real life I have a very beautiful girlfriend. And not an IRS agent, either.”