Thursday, September 21, 2006

TV REVIEW: Jericho: "Pilot"

Last night, CBS unfurled the debut installment of the post-nuclear saga, Jericho -- a production many critics have already dismissed as CBS's own version of Lost. In other words, a little sci-fi...a lot of soap opera. I am always reluctant to judge a series by its pilot, but so far the series fits that stereotype. Jericho centers on a "what if" post-apocalyptic premise, and then descends into full-blown family melodrama and character soap opera interactions.

Jericho begins with enigmatic young Jake (Skeet Ulrich) - a self-confessed "screw up" - driving home to Jericho, Kansas for the first time in five years. There, he fights old battles with his self-righteous, politician Dad (Gerald McRaney) over the inheritance left by his dead grandfather. Jake also meets up with an old girlfriend, played by Birds of Prey star Ashley Scott, and learns that she's engaged to a banker. During his brief visit, Jake tells each old friend he encounters a different story about where he's been during the last five years. In the army; in the Navy; at military school; playing minor league baseball. The truth is never given, and that's a nice touch...and gives the story writers somewhere to go with the character.

Jake leaves Jericho soon after his arrival, but while he's driving away, Denver gets nuked! There's a beautiful shot in of this frightening incident occurring. The camera swoops up over a house's roof while a little boy is playing hide-and-seek there. The camera looms over the structure and in the distance, a mushroom cloud burns and expands...a deadly flower blooming on the horizon. The rest of the episode involves the town's response to the nuclear attack, and the audience learns from young Dale Turner that Atlanta has also been hit. He knows because his answering machine recorded a message from his Mom the moment of the impact; while she's talking, the bomb strikes.

Why the attack? Jericho tells us precious little; wisely leaving the politics vague. Early on, there's a story on the radio about the rise of "global violence" and the President's controversial response to it. Later, the attack seems timed right as the President (off-screen) is about to deliver an address to both houses of Congress. After the bombs hit, of course, it's unlikely anyone will ever know the exact reasons for the deadly attack. Phones, radios and television are all scrambled.

The last half of Jericho's pilot sees Jake rescuing a busload full of school kids on the highway. In one pretty harrowing scene for television, he performs an emergency tracheotomy on a little girl whose windpipe has been crushed in the crash. Meanwhile, back in town, the denizens start to panic at a local gas station, until the Mayor, Jake's Dad, delivers an inspirational, emotional, uplifting - and impromptu - speech. "Are we going to use our imagination to solve problems or cause them?" He asks pertinently. Then, gilding the lily a bit, he emotionally implores the town folk: "Don't you break my heart again..."

Talk about cheesy. And that's the main problem with Jericho, at least at this early stage. It boasts an engaging and unique premise, but so far the writers don't seem to know what to do with it. The writing vacillates between absolutely no sentimentality (in moments like the impromptu throat-slitting; and the re-playing of the answering machine death of Dale's Mom) and total TV bullshit, as in the inspiring speech that quells a panic. Rod Serling wrote "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" for The Twilight Zone a long time ago, and yet it's still a more trenchant comment on panic in suburbia than Jericho proves to be...and it features more authentic emotion too. If it were up to me, I'd let the sentimental, inspirational speechifying lapse and concentrate more on the desperate plight of the characters.

For instance, there's one character in Jericho who seems to understand what's really happening, Robert Hawkins, and I really like him. He's apparently the town's only black man...and also only citizen with a lick of sense. He rightly understands how to stop the panic; rightly recommends the sheriff spray paint over the name "Jericho" on his car (lest angry survivors descend on the town...) and it looks like next week he's wise to the radiation and fall-out that may be headed towards town. Maybe this guy should be mayor. If there's a nuclear attack, I want a problem solver, not a speech-maker in charge.

I don't want to dismiss Jericho out of hand at such an early juncture. The premise is interesting enough to keep me watching for at least five weeks; and as ever, I'm grateful the cast isn't comprised entirely of WB adolescent clothes horses (Supernatural, anybody?). But the writing needs to be a whole lot smoother, smarter and more engaging if we're expected to visit the burg of Jericho every week.

Because, let's face it, Jericho is tapping into a weird brand of wish-fulfillment in its premise. All TV is wish-fulfillment to some degree, but here Jericho plays subtly on our Zeitgeisst; the desire of many Americans to opt-out of the contemporary life-style; of global politics; of a modern life of isolation and alienation rather than community; of the 60-hour-a-week rat-race; of a technology-driven culture where you can be contacted at any time by work via cell phones, e-mails etc. For there to be a renewal of small towns in America, Jericho seems to suggest, the rest of the country's got to go. To renew an America that "can do," the America that can't save its own cities (like New Orleans) has to burn. That concept underlies this series, and as Jericho continues, I expect the town will serve as a microcosm for what's right and what's wrong in our culture today. If the series goes into this line of thinking - dwelling on resources; security, and so on - it could prove one of the most powerful science fiction dramas to come down the pike in a long time. If instead, the series is content to wave the flag and evidence rah-rah patriotism during uplifting speeches, it's just going to be another missed opportunity. And, after a nuclear attack on America, I'm not going to be satisfied with a depiction of small-town family politics every week. If I want a soap opera, I'll watch Grey's Anatomy or Desperate Housewives...


  1. Anonymous1:59 PM

    Hey John,

    Got any thoughts about Heroes? I expect a full review next week, y'know. :)

  2. Hey John!

    Yes, I will be watching Heroes and writing a full review here on the blog!!! Watch this space!



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