Tuned In

Winning Viewers Over, By Blowing Them Up

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It’s not every TV show that starts off by asking a significant chunk of the audience to imagine, at 8 o’clock in the evening, that they’ve been instantly killed. But that’s what happens in the first episode of Jericho, debuting on CBS tonight, and it’s just warming up. Shortly after a prodigal son (Skeet Ulrich) with a mysterious past returns to his hometown of Jericho, Kansas, to try to get his hands on an inheritance, the family drama is interrupted by a nuclear fireball on the horizon. Soon the residents of the town find themselves cut off from the outside world as news trickles in that two, and maybe more, American cities have been destroyed. Sorry, Denver and Atlanta! We’ll miss your ratings numbers!

For sheer audacity and the potential of its premise, I’m putting Jericho on my keep-an-eye-on list. Considering the number of times since 9/11 we’ve seen Jack Bauers and Sydney Bristows save the world, it was time we saw the aftermath of a scenario in which they didn’t. Jericho has taken the right approach to its subject: by setting the story in a small town, it can manageably focus on the small-scale impact of large-scale destruction: the scene, for example, in which a teenage boy learns, by answering machine, that his traveling mother died in one of the blasts is horrible enough to be affecting but not so harrowing that you reach for the remote. And Ulrich, whose character gives different people different stories about what he’s been doing for the last five years away from town, gives the show a low-key sense of moody mystery.

Still, there’s something missing from this postapocalyptic drama, namely, a realistic feeling of apocalypse. For starters, who was responsible for the nuclear attack? (The blasts seem to be H-bomb-sized, bigger than any loose tactical nuke a terrorist might stow in a suitcase, or any crude bomb a rogue nation would throw together.) The show gives a sense that the characters probably know–before the blast, there are vague news reports about international tensions, extremism and terrorism in the background–yet no one mentions or guesses at the perpetrators. Sure, in a crisis you focus on survival before you discuss geopolitics, but what seems to be a decision to keep the bigger picture safely fuzzy makes the show seem a little phony.

And the show focuses so much on personal and family dynamics that it loses any sense of genuine horror that would follow The Big One. The second episode includes a woman-in-peril subplot that’s perfectly believable–social chaos means loose criminals–but also seems like a waste of time when the A-plot involves saving thousands of people from deadly fallout. That goes double for the filial tension between Ulrich and his father, the mayor (Deadwood’s Gerald McRaney). In general, Jericho has the feeling of a show that’s been through one too many meetings and rounds of network notes aimed at making the show "relatable," which means, in this case, turning attention to the kind of soft-focus personal and relationship issues that, you would presume, would kind of fade into the background for a few days after you found the world has blown up.

Still, the deliberately-paced Jericho is as often intriguingly shadowy as it is maddeningly vague, and it deserves credit for being understated where other shows would have gone for pathos. (I won’t spoil it, but the closing seconds of the second episode, in which we get a sense of how deadly the attack was, make up the most quietly chilling scene of any new series I’ve watched this season.) Right now, Jericho is just intriguing enough to give a chance. But with a stronger focus and more postapocalyptic realism, it could be the bomb.