You’ll be happy to know New York survived the nuclear attacks. Twenty-three American cities down, 15 million dead, 40 million homeless. But The Big Apple is still good to go.
If only CBS’ rousing fan fave “Jericho” had time to go there. NYC was part of the plan for the action/conspiracy/character drama’s second season, intended to broaden past post-nuke life in the town of Jericho, Kan., to encompass the country’s leading metropolis and its new “capital” of Cheyenne, Wyo.
But that was before CBS canceled the show last May. And before CBS uncanceled the show in June, thanks to a creative save-the-show campaign by “nutty” devotees. (They sent the network 40,000 pounds of peanuts, inspired by a story line ultimatum to which the besieged town replies, “Nuts!”) CBS offered the series a midseason renewal, yet ordered just seven episodes. A third of a full-length season means a third of the full story. And New York didn’t survive that.
But “Jericho” sure did. The second-season premiere on CBS Tuesday night at 10 rockets into action as if shot from a gun, of which, of course, “Jericho” has many. With the area cut off by the national collapse of infrastructure, the first season ended in a firefight with the provisions-coveting town of New Bern. How the 22nd episode got to that point was an intricate yet intimate web of family crises, political rivalries, romantic hurdles, criminal raids, far-reaching conspiracies and the shootout death of one seemingly essential character.
Yet Tuesday’s season-opener distills all that in a couple-minutes recap to quickly launch a larger plot.
“The story of season 2 walks in the door with Esai Morales and he’s a brand-new character,” says executive producer Carol Barbee, mentioning the actor’s imposing entrance as a military overseer keeping order as Jericho begins to rebuild. “That happens in the top of act one, and we’re going to be following that story through the whole season. So it’s easy for new viewers to come in. These seven episodes go like wildfire, because every episode, something huge happens.”
That scope was hinted in last spring’s finale. (That hour repeats in Universal HD’s full-season this weekend, ending 8 p.m. Sunday. Sci Fi encores the first four hours 7-11 p.m. Monday.) After new Jericho resident and ex-espionage agent Robert Hawkins (Lennie James) said at least one government official was part of the nuke plot, we saw that same official (Daniel Benzali) issuing orders to military officers. Yet the American flag patch on their uniforms held not the familiar 50 stars and horizontal stripes but instead 21 stars and vertical stripes.
“This season is all about the country, the wider country, dealing with this attack,” Barbee said last week by phone. “The wider country” actually is a narrower country, with a Cheyenne-based government leading only western states “on board” with its agenda. A constitutional convention is called to seize “the opportunity to write the next chapter in American history,” as the new “president” puts it. But chapters in new history textbooks have already been rewritten, by Jennings & Rall, an all-encompassing “contractor” that appears to control food, jobs, weapons and other essentials.
“Jericho” lead character Jake Green (Skeet Ulrich) has already been established as a former mercenary who worked in Iraq for contractors, for whom he may have no love lost. Recent town newcomer Mimi (Alicia Coppola) uses her ex-IRS expertise to land a job with J&R. Hawkins’ wife (April D. Parker) works for military overseer Capt. Beck, while her husband and other covert agents try to get the goods on both the new “government” and the plot behind the nuclear attacks. Jake gets pulled into their activities, while brother Eric (Kenneth Mitchell) is drafted into town service, like his ex-mayor father (shootout victim Gerald McRaney), though he wonders, “How does a government no one voted for (get to) change the Constitution?”
All those conflicts lead to the kind of suspense/action emphasized late last season. Personal stories like those prominent when “Jericho” premiered are still featured, especially the romance of city girl Mimi and Stanley the debt-ridden farmer (Brad Beyer), whose unpaid taxes she’d been sent to resolve. But, Barbee stresses, “we’re basically telling one big story and the personal stories that feed into that.”
The new priority was what the producers wanted from the beginning, she says. “But we were bombarded with notes (from the network) that we had to show that there was hope, people were scared of the mushroom cloud” that appeared on the horizon in the series pilot. “To me, the strength of the show that would draw me in was the mushroom cloud. That’s the premise of the show: What do you do if this happens? a lot of that turned into softer storytelling that the show was not engineered to tell.”
Too many cooks can indeed spoil the recipe. It wasn’t until the middle of the season, as those executives drifted to new projects, that Barbee says CBS programmer Nina Tassler “came to me and said, `Tell me the show you want to make. There have been too many voices.’ We really feel like the last half of the season we hit our creative stride.”
“Jericho” also moves from its original 8 p.m. broadcast slot to 10 p.m., a more adult hour for tackling broader concerns of politics and principles. Some of those seem to reflect real current events, including the role of corporate contractors in war and governance.
“We don’t talk a lot of politics in the writers room,” says Barbee, who also scripts some episodes (like the season premiere). “We ourselves get surprised by the stories, like those appealing to gun rights people because we’ve shown how important is the right to bear arms, which was probably not expected of us. But the story has an organic progression, and we have to follow that. It’s speculative fiction - what if, what happens?”
“Jericho” may indeed have what Barbee calls “a little angel on our shoulders.” The contractor storylines were imagined before controversies exploded over Iraq activities by Blackwater and Halliburton, she says, and “some of those events came true.”
The show also returns to air just as the ongoing Writers Guild strike has made network lineups a sea of repeats and reality shows. “There’s very little fresh content. We’re one of the only games in town, with a ready-made rabid audience that will hopefully grow wider as people say, `Yeah, that’s the show people went crazy about.”” Barbee says even the short episode order became a blessing when the strike hit.
“If the network had ordered one more episode, we would be screwed - we would’ve had a huge finale sitting in pieces in an editing bay.”
Instead, “Jericho” is back, an entire (mini-) season intact, with a chance to prove that like the title town, it’s a scrappy survivor. CBS programmer Tassler says, “We think seven episodes gives us a chance to bring viewers back, to really do big, heightened, dramatic stakes. And we’ll see.”