In an interesting strategy, CBS appears to be looking to leverage ABC’s Wednesday-night “Lost” addiction by establishing the mysterious “Jericho” as a cross-network lead-in. Another sociological examination of a community sequestered from the world — in this case, by a distant mushroom cloud and ensuing radio/TV blackout — the series opens an intriguing door, but invites doubt whether the attached corridor is long enough to sustain a multiseason tour. Despite sharp casting, the real trick will be to develop Cold War-style fear while dribbling enough clues to elevate this above being just a post-apocalyptic “The Young and the Restless.”
Skeet Ulrich is prodigal son Jake, visiting the small Kansas town of Jericho after an unexplained five-year absence when the show delivers its money shot — a kid perched on the roof, watching a nuclear cloud bubble outward on the horizon.
Aside from a vague reference to heightened world tensions, there’s no way to know what’s happening: A preemptive nuclear strike? A terrorist attack? Or is the town nut who rants about aliens finally earning vindication?
Cut off from the world, the town goes through the requisite mix of panic and turn-on-each-other nerves, while Jake’s estranged dad, mayor Johnston Green (Gerald McRaney), attempts to maintain order. There’s also the little matter of a wayward bus full of kids (damn those field trips), as well as the more insidious threat of missing convicts, just to ratchet up the stakes.
Ulrich has a nicely vulnerable, wounded quality (there are echoes of Johnny Depp in his work), but he’s a rather sketchy protagonist, enjoying some past with an engaged hottie (Ashley Scott) and a potential future, if furtive glances are worth anything, with the local schoolmarm (“Over There’s” Sprague Grayden).
Very few outlines are filled in during the premiere; the second episode does a creditable job of continuing to tease out the tension, as the prospect of rain risks bathing Jericho’s residents in radioactive sludge. The plot also thickens regarding the newly arrived Mr. Hawkins (Lennie James), who claims to be a relocated St. Louis cop but possesses suspicious knowledge about what to do in case of nuclear fallout.
In a way, “Jericho” recalls various grand Cold War dramas, from “The Day After” and “Testament” (the latter also centered in a remote area far away from the blast) to features like “The World, the Flesh and the Devil” — or for that matter, “The Twilight Zone’s” bomb shelter episode, exploring how crises transform neighbors into potential combatants and can cultivate both the best and worst in people.
Given the fear-mongering associated with the war on terror, this is fertile ground, though thus far the producers approach their characters with a sympathetic eye while throwing in a pinch of “Prison Break” to create a sense of jeopardy — which feels like a bit of a cheat.
Still, two hours in, curiosity lingers about what’s out there, and who’s responsible. And if that’s not enough for “Jericho” to bring the walls crashing down, in the new-serial game, it amounts to some kind of victory.