"Jericho" literally started with a bang, and if these seven episodes turn out to be its last stand, then the show is going out with one, too.

“Jericho” literally started with a bang, and if these seven episodes turn out to be its last stand, then the show is going out with one, too. Having earned a stay of execution thanks partly to fans organized via that new-fangled thing called the Internet, the post-apocalyptic drama returns with two alternate endings in the can — one if the series earns third-season renewal, another to offer greater closure. Either way — and it’s probably a long shot that ratings will keep the walls from tumbling down — the six hours previewed are a blast and then some.

Picking up where last season left off, the series finds the Kansas town of Jericho continuing recovery efforts in the wake of nuclear blasts witnessed on the horizon, while settling its life-and-death dispute with a nearby hamlet. That cliffhanging crisis, however, quickly gives way to a new scenario: The arrival of government troops and a Halliburton-like corporate entity, Jennings & Rall, determined to get the area back on its feet, yet with its own shadowy priorities.

The mysterious Jake (Skeet Ulrich), meanwhile, has scant time to mourn his father’s death from last season, with the new military commander (a steely Esai Morales) urging him to use his natural leadership qualities to control the local population instead of seeking vengeance. At the same time, government agent Robert Hawkins (Lennie James) weighs how to use evidence in his possession — an unexploded nuclear bomb — to expose the conspiracy responsible for this devastating act of domestic terrorism.

There is something slightly unsettling about the show’s reality, inasmuch as a Modesto Bee reporter can sardonically joke that his paper is “the second-largest in California now.” At stake, however, is nothing less than the fate of what’s left of America, filtered through the extremely current prism of balancing security against the country’s principles.

Initially easy to misplace alongside a herd of “Lost” wannabes, “Jericho” has blossomed into a series that stands on its own — infused with emotion and noble sacrifice, considerable tension and a sterling cast. In particular, Ulrich finally has a TV vehicle that thoroughly suits him, and James’ intense and enigmatic Hawkins renders him merely the latest Brit to make a serious indentation on American television.

Despite skepticism when the show premiered, “Jericho” has thus joined the rarefied company of series that merit eager anticipation; indeed, I confess to consuming the episodes made available in one hungry gulp, which if nothing else bodes well for the show’s prospects as a DVD release.

Credit CBS, too, with recognizing (albeit after some prodding) that it would have simply been bad customer service to cancel this program given the open-ended manner in which last season concluded, especially with all the unanswered questions still drifting among those mushroom clouds. By providing “Jericho” a second chance, CBS, the producers and even the show’s “nuts”-iest fans have ample reason to toot their horns.

Jericho

CBS, Tues. Feb. 12, 10 p.m.

Production

Filmed in Los Angeles by CBS Paramount Network Television. Executive producers, John Turtletaub, Carol Barbee; co-executive producers, Karim Zreik, Dan Shotz, Rob Fresco, John Peter Kousakis; supervising producer, Joy Gregory; producer, Jonathan E. Steinberg; director, Steve Boyum; writers, Barbee, Steinberg.

Crew

Camera, Rick Maguire; editor, Conrad Smart; music, David Lawrence; production designer, Charisse Cardenas; casting, Sharon Bialey, Sherry Thomas. RUNNING TIME: 60 MIN.

Cast

Jake Green - Skeet Ulrich Robert Hawkins - Lennie James Emily Sullivan - Ashley Scott Stanley Richmond - Brad Beyer Eric Green - Kenneth Mitchell Mimi Clark - Alicia Coppola Grey Anderson - Michael Gaston Heather Lisinski - Sprague Grayden Major Edward Beck - Esai Morales Darcy Hawkins - April D. Parker
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