Friday, September 29, 2006

Jericho Is Not Lost

Every so often there's a show which has a fascinating premise and a good to great cast but when the show finally emerges somehow doesn't deliver on the promise. Jericho is a show like that. After watching the second episode I'd say that this show could be more than just an adequate bit of entertainment, and still might develop into something more. After two episodes though I have to say that it isn't there yet.

Think the end of the world is scary? That's nothing compared with the end of civilization. At the end of the world everyone dies, but at the end of civilization people revert to the state of nature. And it's not just any state of nature either, it's a very Hobbesian state of nature where, as old Thomas put it, life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." The science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle wrote a book about that called Lucifer's Hammer and while it didn't deal with a nuclear bombing, it did involve an event which basically left the world without the trappings of civilized man and featured what amounted to a determined group in one location trying to pull things together despite the best efforts of the uncivilized hordes to overwhelm them. There's dramatic tension in that sort of story line. Unfortunately I don't think that Jericho is delving anywhere near that deep into the subject.

In the pilot episode we're introduced to the primary cast, and they seem to fit "types". There's Gerald McRaney as the town patriarch, Mayor Johnston Green, and his two sons. Eric (Kenneth Mitchell) is the good son who stayed in town and helps dad run the place, while Jake (Skeet Ulrich) is the mysterious prodigal son who is a disappointment to his father but his mother Gail's (Pamela Reed) favourite. There's Grey Anderson (Michael Gaston), the man who wants to run the town - not an outright bad guy but someone who wants to disturb the natural order of things. There's Dale Turner (Erik Knudsen), the kid from the wrong side of the tracks whose trailer trash mom was off in Atlanta doing what trailer trash moms do. Of course he has a crush on one of the richest girls in town. There's Jake's old girlfriend Emily Sullivan (a blonde Ashley Scott) whose fiancee was flying into Wichita, and the young and extremely skilled school teacher - Heather Lisinski (Sprague Graydon) - who is clearly going to be the third leg of this love triangle. To round things off are Stanley and Bonnie Richmond (Brad Beyr and Shoshannah Stern), two siblings who own a farm in the area despite the fact that she's deaf. Finally there's British actor Lennie James as Robert Hawkins, the mysterious newcomer in town who claims to have been a cop in St. Louis but seems to know about a lot of things than an ordinary cop wouldn't know. Plus there's the usual assortment of people who don't stand out as important, at least not yet.

The first episode also set the premise - the townspeople of Jericho Kansas become aware of a nuclear blast in the vicinity of Denver. Most of them see the mushroom cloud rising in the west behind an intervening mountain range (in Kansas... or even eastern Colorado) just as the President of the United States is about to make a speech to Congress on increasing global violence. Setting aside how unlikely it is that you could see a mushroom cloud rising over Denver from even the Kansas state line, the image of the boy standing on the roof of a building watching the mushroom cloud after his little sister counted "5...4...3...2...1" is a strong visual, and a reminder of the famous "Daisy" ad from the 1964 presidential campaign. Equally affecting is the way that the town first learns that Denver isn't the only place that has been hit by a nuclear blast. Dale Turner's mother called their home just as the Atlanta bomb exploded and the way that he plays the answering machine tape over and over to hear her voice is certainly effective. The trouble is that this seems to be as far as they go. The lights go out - I'm surprised they lasted as long as they did - and people start to panic. There's a run at the gas pumps since these folks need gas to run their generators, and things almost get violent before the mayor gives an inspirational little variant on his campaign speech that calms everyone down by reminding them to be proud of their town. There's a bus full of school kids who go off the road and hit a deer. They're rescued by Jake, despite the fact that his leg is injured. In fact, the mysterious prodigal son even has the time and skills to do an emergency tracheotomy on a little girl using juice box straws (none of the kids is old enough to have a pen).

I have to confess that the second episode was better than the first, although it didn't really live up to my hopes for this series either. The second episode featured two major plot points. The first concerned an approaching rain storm which would drive the radioactive dust from the Denver explosion to the ground right over Jericho. The townspeople needed to take shelter from the "fallout rain" but the the town's two fallout shelters can only house a fraction of them - those who can find shelter in basements or storm cellars at home are advised to do so. In one Eric details exactly how you die from radiation poisoning to a group of guys who refuse to go to the shelters and are planning on dying with their buddies playing pool. This scene seems to redeem Eric but in a later scene he acts like a tough bastard when he turns away busses filled with people from the town's other, uninhabitable shelter. It is Jake who comes up with a solution to the problem by suggesting that the people take shelter in the local salt mine, and it is Jake who mysteriously knows enough about demolition to know how to collapse the entrance to the mine without bringing the whole place down on the people's heads.

The episode's other major plot resolved a pair of cliffhangers from the premier. One concerned Emily, who was blissfully unaware of the bombs and had been driving to Wichita to pick up her fiance. The other was related to the search for the school bus. The county sheriff and one of his deputies found a wrecked bus, but it turned out to be a bus carrying convicts. In the second episode Emily was picked up by a sheriff's car carrying two mend dressed as deputies, but bit by bit she became aware that they weren't what they seemed, a belief that was confirmed when she heard an actual police broadcast that mentioned that the sheriff was missing. They ended up at the Richmond farm, where only Bonnie was at home. The "deputies" needed gas for their car but Stanley had the only key and he was in town. Tension grew as Emily sought a way to protect herself and Bonnie and to get help from town. Eventually she was able to get a gun and three bullets from a display that the Richmonds had on a table, and was able to escape to the car and its radio to call for help. The call was heard by Jake, who raced from the mine (after detonating the explosive to close the entrance from the outside) to the Richmond farm, just in time to gun down the two fake deputies and get Emily, Bonnie, and the two real sheriffs deputies (who were still alive in the trunk of the car) into the relative safety of the Richmonds' storm cellar.

The problem I have with Jericho isn't that it's a bad show. It is perfectly adequate and if anything seems to have improved over the first episode. The problem I guess is that I was expecting and hoping for something more than a "perfectly adequate" show. The show is being compared in some circles to Lost, but by that comparison they are falling short. We are barely aware of relationships outside of the Green Family and their friends and colleagues, like the Richmonds and Grey Anderson. In fact the only character who is really outside this circle is the mysterious Robert Hawkins who knows more than he's telling. He has far more knowledge than a guy who was a cop in St. Louis and had some anti-terrorism training after 9/11 would have. He's keeping information from his neighbours - like the fact that Philadelphia, San Diego, Chicago and at least three other cities were also hit - and seems to have bought a house with its own extensive bomb shelter. One of the strengths of Lost is that while there are central figures in the cast it is a large ensemble and attention can shift between the characters. In the first two episodes of Jericho the focus has clearly been on Skeet Ulrich's Jake as the "man of action." In the first two episodes, and in the previews for the third, Jake has played a central role while the other characters haven't had nearly the development. Moreover there seems to be little of the character development that is so much a part of Lost. We know very little about most of the characters, and in the case of Jake and Robert Hawkins the truth is actively being kept from us. tantalising tidbits are being revealed - Eric is married to the town doctor but seems to be carrying on some sort of an affair with the owner of the local tavern - but just how important this information will be is hard to determine at the moment.

Jericho is a show with. Gerald McRaney was an outstanding presence in the third season of Deadwood. Sadly the part of Mayor Johnston Green doesn't have nearly the depth of George Hearst on Deadwood. Similarly Pamela Reed seems to be relegated into yet another supporting role as Gail Green. So far she doesn't really seem to have much to do beyond being - well supportive of her husband and her two sons. Skeet Ulrich's character of Jake. He seems to be a good fit for the role, although I think that the focus on his character tends to detract from the potential of other actors. The two younger female leads, played by Ashley Scott and Heather Lisinski seem likely to be relegated into a romantic triangle with Jake. The characters are both capable in their own ways but they seem somehow to be relegated to lesser positions within the scripts.

I don't want to seem too negative about Jericho. I still think the premise has considerable potential and it could realize that potential. Still, this season seems to be giving us an abundance of good shows - dare I say it superior quality shows as compared with previous seasons. I'm not sure that Jericho falls into that category, at least not yet. I confess that there are shows that were cancelled last season that I would prefer to watch instead of Jericho. The show is doing well in the ratings, so far finishing second in it's time slot to Dancing With The Stars, and is building an audience, but for my part I just feel that this is not a strong offering. Certainly it isn't comparable to Lost. If the two shows went head to head I'm inclined to believe that Lost would easily emerge as the winner. From my point of view Jericho needs more of a sense of impending menace not from radiation but from other people, the ones in the Hobbesian state of nature who are determined to take what they need from those who have it. I also think that it needs to focus more on the larger ensemble and less on the character of Jake. If the writers can work on these aspects, and the viewers are willing to accept this sort of thing, I think the series could become more than "just" adequate.

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