My wife and I love TV on DVD almost as much as we love one another. And while that’s a big almost, it’s also a big love, a dedicated, compromising and cuddly love we share whenever possible. Nieves and I have spent hours together watching The Sopranos, Lost, Alias and most of the shows I’ve reviewed here at PopMatters (she passed on Full House, citing irreconcilable differences).
We enjoy this time together no because our minds shut off and we’re sucked into other worlds of spies and gangsters, but because it excites parts of our brains simultaneously in a way books and records never do. If she wakes me up crying in the middle of the night because she just finished a sad, beautiful book, I can’t be there in the moment with her; but when Jack and Locke stared into the abyss of the Hatch at the end of Lost’s first season, we both kicked the couch, gnashed our teeth and immediately wanted more.
When Jericho arrived in the mail she was snide. “Oh god, not Skeet”, she said. Her disdain for Skeet Ulrich is the result of his status as the poor man’s Johnny Depp and, as her love of Cry Baby knows no bounds, any threat, real or imagined, to Depp’s hunk throne is automatically dismissed.
I, however, had work to do. I tuned in for the series’ premiere last fall, and though I lost interest halfway through, I remained interested in the post-apocalyptic basis of the show throughout the season. Jericho is the story of a small Kansas town (called Jericho) that becomes isolated from the rest of the country after a catastrophic nuclear attack levels the bulk of the nation’s major cities. Ulrich stars as Jake Green, black sheep son of the town’s mayor, Johnston Green (Gerald McRaney). The town is populated with a cast of characters straight out of any small town in America, including schoolteacher Emily (Ashley Scott), farmer Stanley (Brad Beyer), outcast teen Dale (Erik Knudsen), and the mayor’s wife Gail (Pamela Reed) and older son, Eric (Kenneth Mitchell). Other characters rotate in and out of subplots and, due to the nature of the show, some don’t make it through to the season finale.
Though Jake is positioned as the series’ main character, with a bulk of the pilot focusing on his return to town after a five-year absence, the show’s most intriguing character is Robert Hawkins (Lennie James). Hawkins moves to town with his family just before the bombs hit and he’s immediately put on the audience’s list of suspicious persons. He’s seen retreating to his heavily fortified basement and accessing a computer even though the town’s without power, both signs that he is somehow involved with the plot to blow up the country. As with the characters on the show, though, the audience is often in the dark about information on the world outside Jericho. It’s a deliberately mysterious move in the vein of Lost, a show without which Jericho might never have happened.
These comparisons to Lost were the highlight of our early discussions of this show. Nieves and I agreed Jericho’s title screen, which is simply the title written in TV static against a black screen with droning music, is virtually identical to that of Lost, and instead of an island in the ocean, our characters are stuck in a town amidst an ocean of corn.
During the early episodes, when the bombs go off and the people of the town see the horrific sight of a mushroom cloud rising in the distance, and panic causes people to horde food and fuel, Nieves and I experienced alternating moments fear and frustration. The fear is the “what if?” factor. When Jericho works it is a frightening portrait of what could happen if, as our leaders tell us, “the terrorists’ greatest dream” comes true and they get their hands on nuclear weapons. On the show, it’s a widespread, coordinated attack, but it’s that kind of worst-case scenario over amplification that, as in the best science fiction, makes the reality that much scarier.
The frustration we felt was a result of the heavy-handed nature of the early episodes. With the town in a panic, the power going out and people in need of varying degrees of medical attention, the show’s writers and directors found themselves in the unenviable position of having to portray necessary dramatic moments that could all-too easily decay into cliché and melodrama. Instead of quiet moments of heroism and a subdued orchestral score, we’re treated to overblown montages with bland “emotional” rock songs and back-of-a-truck speeches from the mayor asking, “Are we going to use our imaginations to solve problems or create them?” In these early episodes the mayor is the town’s salvation, and though McRaney’s performances are tasteful and statesmen-like, his character so closely resembles the post-9/11 George W. Bush it caused some polite retching from the wife and me.
This is not to say the show operates as an administration mouthpiece or proponent of war. The mid-west values of the town are the characters’ primary motivation, but politics aren’t a major theme. There is, however, an apparent reference to Iraq when two of the townspeople fight over gas, prompting one of them to yell, “This is just about fuel!” As the season wears on, though, our own concerns about the safety and security are mirrored in the people of Jericho. More on that will come later.
Like it’s cousin Lost, Jericho is a high-concept show. What draws the audience in is the premise. A plane crashes on a mysterious island on one show while in the other nuclear bombs obliterate American cities. What keeps people coming back are the characters. With Lost, we have the luxury of getting to know the characters through flashbacks, which also allows us to see how their past affects their decisions on the island. The flashback device fleshes out the characters in a way expository dialogue can’t.
This is Jericho’s biggest flaw. Hawkins is mysterious and his motivations unknown until almost the end of the season, with the audience left to decide on faith whether to trust him or not. In the same way, Jake is mysterious about his years away from home. Both characters later share a flashback that explain some of where they’ve been, but the bulk of their back-stories are exposed through dialogue and, as a result, they never quite come alive. Even when all the cards are on the table, we don’t root for them because we care so much as because it’s the right thing for us to do.
It was slow going for Nieves and me. Every time I asked if she wanted to move ahead she was reluctant. She’d assent, but her attention focused more on her knitting than the struggles at the medical center or the romance between Eric and Mary Bailey (Clare Carey). At the midpoint, though, something changed. The vague, teasing of before paid off and we got to see the world outside Jericho. Jake, Johnston, Dale and Heather (Sprague Hayden) head to a nearby trading post called Black Jack, located on an old fairground, to try to find machine parts. There they learn more about the situation across the country, and they see what life is like in the new normal. In Black Jack rules are strictly enforced. Armed guards do not allow weapons in and shoplifters are strung up and killed like when the clay was still wet on Hammurabi’s Code of Laws.
It’s in this dangerous, Wild West atmosphere that the stakes for the town become higher and the desperation of their situation, as well as their relative safety as compared to other towns, becomes apparent.
We didn’t say it at the time, but it was then we realized it wasn’t the characters we cared about as much as it was the town. Mayor Green, in one of his George W. in the rubble speeches, says he’d “take the good people of Jericho over anyone in the world.” When Nieves and I met some of those other people, we realized we agreed with the honorable mayor. Our mayor.
By the season’s end, Jericho returns to the political themes that popped up intermittently in the first few episodes. A nearby town called Newbern, led by maniacal sheriff-turned dictator Phil Constantino (Timothy Omundsen), amasses an army and begins the march toward town. The people of Jericho are forced to take up arms against their former high school football rivals. It’s a battle about land, sovereignty, survival and the decision to sacrifice oneself to protect others. These are all timely themes, and this time, though we’re still treated to the bland songs, the drama is onscreen and not just in the voice of the singer. Themes of torture pop up, as well as the “whatever it takes to protect us” motto we hear so much of these days, and it all hits close to home. The people of Jericho are forced to fight, but, unlike us, they live in a world of right and wrong, black and white. Their decision to take a stand doesn’t condemn or condone our nation’s current standing on the world stage, but it does show how once the drums start beating, the march to war is hard to stop.
The season-ending cliffhanger was the end of Jericho for a while, leaving fans to piece together for themselves what happens next: CBS cancelled the series earlier this summer. Fortunately, due to a flood of letters and over 20 tons of peanuts (a reference to the finale) the show has been picked up as a seven episode mid-season replacement. In a way, the final scenes of the battle between Jericho and Newbern felt resolved without knowing the result of the battle. With shots firing and the screen going black, it seemed like an inevitability, that no matter what people do it will always come down to shots being fired, lives being taken. It would be a dark end to a series that, despite its subject matter, is often hopeful, if not happy.
Bonus features include director and actor commentaries, most of which don’t go much further than, “It was cold when we shot this.” These are entertaining if not enlightening. Deleted scenes and a brief, uninteresting documentary on the history of the United States’ Civil Defense round out the supplements.
The time Nieves and I spent with the show was frustrating at times, rewarding at others. We fought with Jericho early on, unsure we wanted to continue, but we were determined. Always held in the thrall of the concept if not the characters, we watched as the show assimilated elements of Lost, one of our favorites, and action movies with varying results. When we finally finished, late on a Friday night, we breathed a sigh of relief; relief it was over and that our time wasn’t wasted. We may not be ready for seconds right now, but when there’s more, I think we’re going to want it.