Every period of history has its own way of ending the world. The shadow of a mushroom cloud fell across the twentieth century, bringing with it the concept of the un-winnable war, the nuclear winter, and Mutually Assured Destruction. The twenty first century, to date, has been distinguished by a global rise in terrorism and the awareness of terrorism, the fear of the bomb replaced by the fear of the dirty bomb or the sleeper cell no one catches in time. Jericho (CBS, Wednesdays at 8pm) builds on these fears to explore what happens after the world ends.
Jericho, Kansas is a completely archetypal, completely average small town. Run by Mayor Johnston Green (Gerald Mcraney), Jericho is small, friendly, and filled with family businesses. It even has a returning hero, in the form of the Mayor's younger son Jake (Skeet Ulrich). Jake has spent the last five years playing minor league baseball, or serving in the navy, or living any one of a dozen other stories he tells friends and family. Either on the run from his past or running back to it, Jake is a slippery, ambiguous figure and it's no accident that the first time we see him, it's over the first line of "All These Things I've Done" by The Killers: When there's nowhere left to run / is there room for one more son?
This particular lyric is echoed throughout the episode as Jake returns to Jericho, reconnects with old friends, and has a disastrous reunion with his family. The dramatic heart of the show, the Green family interact with as much weariness as they do warmth, the uneasy relationship between Jake and his father neatly laid out in a scene which makes it clear exactly how troubled Jake is without spelling it out. It's one of the several conflicts that lie at the heart of the show, including the rivalry between Jake's father and Gray Anderson (Michael Gaston) his opponent in the mayoral elections and the affair Jake's brother Eric (Ken Mitchell) is having with bar owner Mary Bailey (Clare Carey). Each one of these relationships rings true and each one is tested to breaking point when a mushroom cloud is spotted on the horizon and suddenly, the outside world makes its presence felt in Jericho.
This combination of Capraesque drama and the end of the world is both highly unusual and extremely difficult to do well. Ignore the nuclear war and focus on the town and you have Little House On The Atomic Prairie. Similarly, focus on the war at the expense of the town and you have Mad Max: The Early Years. It's a difficult balance to strike, and the pilot episode's second half hour is built around this dichotomy. Its best moment demonstrates the strengths of the approach perfectly, as Jake discovers a school bus run off the road after the explosion. On it, he finds a girl whose throat was badly bruised in the crash and is forced to perform a tracheotomy. In one scene, Jake is both heroic and oddly threatening, carrying out the life-saving procedure with an ease which suggests that he may well have been trained to do it. As the series progresses, this idea, that Jake may be far better prepared than he initially appears, moves closer to the fore.
The pilot episode only overreaches itself once, with Mayor Johnston's final speech. Delivered to the whole town, it's clearly intended as a rallying cry, the father of the town calling on everyone to work together because that's the only way they'll survive. Unfortunately, it comes across as a moment of pure sentimentality, sitting awkwardly with the brutal pragmatism, and mushroom cloud, that precedes it.
That mushroom cloud and its effects are at the heart of the second episode, "Fallout." A fallout-laden thunderstorm is less than three hours away from Jericho and Mayor Johnston and his sons lead the frantic attempts to get the town ready. With five thousand people and a fallout shelter designed for only three hundred, desperate measures are taken to get the others out of harm's way, with many of the town's inhabitants being evacuated to the local salt mine. Once again, there's a hint about Jake's past, as he rigs demolition charges to close the mine with the same casual ease he showed in the pilot.
"Fallout" is a lean, stripped-down engine of an episode that hits the ground running and never lets up. The frantic efforts to get the town evacuated give several characters the opportunity to shine, most notably Johnston's older son, Eric. In one of the best moments of the series to date, he finds Mary's bar filled with patrons intent on staying where they are and dying amongst friends. He responds that they're welcome to do that and goes on to list the symptoms of radiation sickness they'll suffer before their eventual, agonising death. The entire speech is delivered in a calm, almost monotone fashion that only gives it more impact and leads, unsurprisingly, to the bar being cleared.
The episode's other notable moments go to Jake and to Robert Hawkins. As well as the situation at the mine, Jake is responsible for rescuing his ex-girlfriend Emily (Ashley Scott) from a pair of escaped felons. The gunfight between them, which takes place beneath a sky heavy with fallout-laden clouds, is an eerie combination of the wild west and the new world, a world which Jake seems strangely at home in. Ulrich trades off this unsettling aspect of Jake's character to tremendous effect, playing him as a man who is likeable, even heroic but difficult to pin down. There's a palpable sense of danger and uncertainty to Ulrich's performance that's a brave choice by both the actor and the writers, and makes him fascinating to watch.
Hawkins's stand out moment is a little quieter. During the evacuation he decodes a radio message which provides vital information about the attacks. As the episode closes, we see Hawkins methodically placing pins in a map of the US: he has learnt exactly which cities have been hit in the attack and is working out what's left. It's an understated scene but it drives home two points which may well prove vital to the series: the vast majority of the major cities are gone and, judging by how prepared he is, Hawkins knew it was coming. Lennie James does fantastic work here, giving the character a real sense of guilt mixed with moments where he's genuinely intimidating. For example, as "Four Horsemen" opens, we see him methodically putting on radiation gear and moving a stock of weapons and equipment from a lock up in town. He's an element of chaos in the town, his connection to the outside world both making him vital and setting him apart. Hawkins is one of the most interesting characters in the series and James, arguably, is turning in the best performance.
"Four Horsemen" is a turning point for the series, with the townsfolk relatively safe and looking to the outside world for information. Jake spearheads a plan, nicknamed "The Four Horsemen" in which search parties head out along the compass directions to try and find out what's gone on. It's interestingly played, especially as it marks a clear deviation from the isolationism championed by some of the characters in the pilot. Jericho's population need to know the bigger picture and to do so, they need to be part of the bigger picture.
"Four Horsemen" really sees the series move into gear, the key moment coming when Jake discovers a 767 parked on the highway just outside town. When he recovers the flight recorder, they discover that ten thousand planes were in the air when the bombs hit and at least some of them, including the one Jake found, landed safely. This, combined with the local bar picking up a Chinese news broadcast on their satellite dish, leads to one conclusion: they're not alone. The war, whilst still devastating, was not total. This sudden sense of hope lifts the series immeasurably, as Emily discovers that her fiancé survived the attack, word comes in that a National Guard battalion has been mobilised and, as the episode ends, a crashed train filled with food is discovered. The war may not be over but the very fact that other people are alive raises the town's spirits. The final scenes of the episode show Jericho's twin themes of family drama and apocalyptica meld as the mayor arranges a huge town cook out. Ostensibly, its to allow the town to relax a little after the horrors of the last few days. In reality, its because the power in the meat lockers has gone and the food is starting to spoil.
Jericho is a fascinating combination of character drama and post-apocalypse survival tale. After a shaky start it looks to be paying equal attention to both areas, with the townsfolk rapidly becoming an interesting and fleshed out group of characters even as the exact nature of the world they find themselves in becomes clear. How the town will survive as well as what exactly has happened (to say nothing of the role Hawkins or even Jake may have played in starting it) remains to be seen. What's clear though is that this is a series which isn't flinching from the difficult questions and with a full season just confirmed, looks to have found a winning formula. For the time being at least, Jericho both survives and is well worth a visit.
Alasdair Stuart is an experienced writer and freelance journalist. His work has appeared in Neo, Fortean Times, Here and Now, and on websites including opi8, Fractal Matter, and Video Vista. He lives in the North of England with far too many computers and an alarming amount of DVDs.