We have our frequency sir, but outside, it’s like there’s no one there.
–Sara (Princess Lucaj), “Pilot”
We got trouble.
–Hawkins (Lennie James), “Fallout”
Jake (Skeet Ulrich) has been “around.” That’s exactly the way he describes his five-year absence from Jericho, Kansas, the small town where his folks still live. When pressed for a more specific answer (“Jake, no one’s been around for five years”), he offers a few, different for each interlocutor: he’s been in the army, the navy, maybe even minor league baseball.
The profession of military service impresses the adults who want to know where their Jake has been, and fits a vague mood established during the first minutes of the Jericho‘s pilot episode, when Jake’s car radio makes the kind of background noise that no one pays much attention to: “Security is high on Capitol Hill,” says a reporter as Jake drives by a shop advertising “Guns, Ammo & Gifts.” Pointedly, it Congress is about to hear the President “address the issue of global violence.” The report continues,
Recent attacks have pushed this administration to take extreme action, raising more fears than it is alleviating. With global tension rising, the president is taking a risky step, by confronting what political observers…
The radio cuts off as Jake parks and greets an old buddy, leaving you to guess just what those “observers” might be calling the president’s gambit. The world is precarious, no doubt, but as leaders and reporters yap on and on, the majority of their supposed listeners remain distracted, distressed, perpetually flummoxed by their own efforts to pay rent, move on, or resent hell out of their circumstances.
And then comes the trouble. A lot of it.
The premise of Jericho is post-apocalyptic, so Jake’s brief return and departure — including a disagreement with his dad, Mayor Johnston Green (Gerald McRaney) and an agreement to keep secrets with his mom Gail (the awesome Pamela Reed) — is almost immediately subsumed by a grand demonstration of just how devastating the effect of these external forces might be. Jake is headed back to San Diego, his ex Emily (Ashley Scott) is awaiting her banker fiancé’s arrival on a plane, and a school bus full of cute little kids is coming home from a field trip. The camera cuts from one innocent victim to another, finally showing a small boy climbing to a rooftop so that he might gaze off in the distance where — blam — a mushroom cloud has decimated Denver.
This pinkish sky is almost pretty, but the point is plain: this explosion will have immediate and continuing effects. It occurs to you that this series might be filed alongside last year’s criminally under-watched Invasion, or maybe the more ambitiously figurative crowd favorite Lost. Either way, Jericho is looking like it has lessons to dispense. For the most part, these seem arranged around the usual sorts of characters: Jake finds his way to the school bus, where he heroically saves a child’s life (with cuts to anxious children and pulsing-then-uplifting soundtrack to indicate when it’s appropriate to feel relieved: really, the music for Jericho is overwhelming). A little boy gasps at the insta-tracheotomy and asks, “How’d you learn to do that?” Ahh, says self-effacing Jake, in military school. But he wasn’t a soldier, he confesses. Instead, “I was a screw-up.”
Of course, this means he’s primed for major redemption. Back in town, he does the right thing and gets out of the way of the very cool teacher and mechanics expert Heather (Sprague Grayden). In Episode Two, “Fallout,” she starts putting vehicles back together, and fairly stands out among the more usual suspects, who include Johnston (who begins to rethink his simmering rage at Jake after seeing he’s saved the kiddies) and Jake’s brother, Eric (Kenneth Mitchell), who never left Jericho and now looks a bit stiff and provincial, not to mention untrustworthy. (Their fraternal tension is summarized in a line, when Jake answers Eric’s suggestion that he’s done wrong by leaving, “We were both born on third base, quit pretending you hit a triple.”)
While Jake slides fairly easily into full-blown heroism (involving guns and an actionated score), Eric appears repeatedly confused. He tries to limit access to the teeny town shelter, rightly noting the limited air in it, but also sounding awfully bureaucratic. And when Eric goes to a bar, in “Fallout,” to instruct the pool players and beer drinkers to head for shelter as a storm is bringing deadly radiation their way, they laugh at him. At least until he offers up a graphic description of radiation sickness, at which point they shudder appropriately and look sheepish. At the same time, Eric’s wife April (Darby Stanchfield) provides a moral resistance to her husband’s awkward pragmatism: a doctor at the clinic, she has no interest in helping him maintain the political status quo (Eric supports his dad, apparently mostly to oppose his brother). As some bystanders worry about “politicizing” the crisis, she focuses intently on rescuing victims, even when this means she turns down the “place” Eric has saved for her in the shelter.
April’s compassionate girl part is countered, in turn, by the Mysterious Stranger, Hawkins (Lennie James), who identifies himself as a former cop “from St. Louis” (thus drawing skepticism from the small-towners, as in the sheriff’s admonition, “This isn’t St. Louis!”). Hawkins’ interest in the event and in rescuing folks appears suspicious for the most obvious reasons: the camera lingers on his face as he watches others scramble around him and his advice is constructively geared to dampen fighting among anxious, wrong-headed community members. When Hawkins finds a way to light up a literally dark situation, an impressed city worker only half-jokes, “Are you sure you’re not the science teacher?” How does he know what to do? “Because,” he says, “I was a cop in St. Louis, and after 9/11, we got up to speed.” The fact that “up to speed” means putting up plastic sheeting and duct tape against radiation might give some viewers pause.
There’s also the small matter of Hawkins being the only black man in sight. During the first two Jericho episodes, Hawkins’ function shifts from odd to odious, as he appears to have an understanding of what’s happening that extends quite beyond anyone else’s. And though you see him engaged in activities no one else sees, such scenes don’t exactly align you with him, but instead make him seem untrustworthy, like he’s emerged from the hatch on Lost. Looking out on the horizon at the end of the first episode, Hawkins is asked what he’s thinking. “I was just wondering what it was all gonna look like in the morning,” he murmurs, as the camera pulls out to suggest such sentiment is meaningful.
As Jericho imagines a very present danger, it taps into all kinds of current fearfulness. As much as the citizens yearn for security, they are also cynical, inclined to distrust seeming or self-named leaders, as well as reporters of any kind of news or even “science teachers.” They want Jake to save them. That is, even in their cynicism, they seek a very old-fashioned solution.