On August 14, 2003 at 4:12 p.m., the power went out. I shrugged — power outages happen all the time — and kept reading my book. It wasn’t until I got bored and wandered out of my apartment a couple hours later that I found out that this wasn’t just a block-wide outage, or even a city-wide problem; over 50 million people in Canada and the eastern U.S. were suddenly out of electricity in what would become one of the largest multi-day power outages in history. A local power outage is one thing, but to know that you’ve suddenly plunged into an electricity-free lifestyle along with a huge chunk of your continent was quite another.
Michigan quickly became a weird place to live. There wasn’t much to do – so much of our lives revolve around electrical gadgets these days – and to make matters worse, it was scorchingly hot. We had no running water, the food in our fridges was going bad, traffic cones replaced traffic lights all over town, water pumps could no longer keep large amounts of rainfall off the freeway, and we scrambled to dust off radios to find out what was going on. That night, I slept over at a friend’s house, and we had a BBQ in the middle of the darkest night that metro Detroit’s seen for a long time.
That blackout was a tiny taste of a possible apocalypse. Just a hint of the flavor of society growing ragged at the edges — hording, uncertainty, looting, a shrinking world — but enough to make me think… what if the lights had never come back on?
In this 2006 TV series, Jericho, Kansas is a town where all of the power suddenly flips off. Nobody quite knows why. Then, not ten minutes into the pilot episode, this small community watches in horror as a mushroom cloud blooms over Denver. If that wasn’t bad enough, it turns out that this is just one of many nuclear strikes all over America. But this isn’t the story of the nation as a whole, just one town. Jericho is isolated from help, information and the government, leaving the townspeople to only guess when the power might (if at all) come back on, and what to do in the meantime.
You have to applaud the audacity of the show’s makers, who tackle the world’s fears about present-day terrorism and war by not giving us a series that’s about people trying to stop the end of the world, but people going through the end of the world.
Our protagonist is Jake (Scream’s Skeet Ulrich), a prodigal son that returns to town on the day of the attack. Laden with a mysterious past™, Jake bounces between ensemble characters and situations like he’s MacGuyver with elvish eyes. Jake performs emergency surgery! Jake hardwires explosives! Jake fixes a water pumping station! Jake goes all commando on mercs! Jake makes the smoochies with the town hotties! He’s a great role model.
On a larger level, Jericho is about this nuclear apocalypse saga, where this tiny country burg has more to do with the events than anyone knows… yet. But on a smaller level, it’s about a community of multi-layered folk who try to band together to preserve their humanity and instant coffee. It’s the every day questions that need to be answered first: How do we eat? What happens when the medicine and generators run out? Who is in charge?
Jericho aspires to be a blend of several excellent shows – Lost, Heroes, Battlestar Galactica, Twin Peaks – borrowing, sampling and regurgitating at times. It’s not a dark show, for the most part, nor as deep as others, but it is engrossing in its own fashion.
For all of its scrappy can-do underdog charm, Jericho certainly isn’t without its faults. Although the story is good, you can’t help but start to wonder if people would really act like this in a post-apocalyptic society – half the time, it’s a corner turn away from being on the same street as Gilmore Girls or any daytime soap opera. Listen, CBS: I don’t care if so-and-so is having an affair and is tormented over staying with his wife or not. You just dropped the Bomb. I expect mutants (lots of them), sheet metal welded onto cars, and ridiculous new lingo that suddenly warrants capitalization (“Outlanders” is a good place to start). The producers have gone on record saying that they wanted to emphasize a more feminine, softer element to the show, but boy, is it out of place here.
Happily, I will give them credit for their realizing that the more soap opera elements had to be toned down severely to make room for an increasingly harried tale of survival. While it makes the first half-dozen episodes a less than compelling experience in parts, I understand their reasoning. Jericho is a relatively isolated and self-reliant community that suffers less than others by the attacks, and therefore it takes longer for normalcy to fade away as the desperate situation sinks in. By the midpoint of the season, any stumbling or flailing by the writers vanishes, leaving complicated characters, intriguing situations, and a country that’s both reeling and adapting. Like many post-apocalyptic tales, the examination of how people react and change in hard times – some for better, some for much worse – is the crux of the story.
I also have a beef with the musical score. By and large, it’s only two pieces of music (which I’ve entitled “Nuclear Tension Is Fun!” and “Mom, Let’s Sit Down And Have A Very Special Talk”) played ad infinitum. It’s not a bad score, but its overuse reeks of emotional manipulation.
In a touch of the ironic, Jericho the show shares its namesake’s razor-thin struggle for survival. During the first season, it struggled with ratings (ending up 48th), going on a mid-season hiatus, then returning in the spring to finish out its 22-episode run. Despite a slowly growing interest in the series, CBS announced its cancellation in May 2007. Loyal viewers, the cast and the crew all mourned – but the fans didn’t take the news and go away. CBS got deluged with calls and sacks of peanuts, in reference to the final episode’s use of “NUTS!” as a defiant slogan. In less than three weeks, CBS reversed their decision and ordered a partial second season – 7 episodes to be used as a midseason replacement. While not ideal, this would offer the show’s creators the opportunity to tie up cliffhangers and storylines.
Jericho definitely needed some time to find its legs and let the entire ensemble cast share the glory – the episodes swing wildly from a handful of focused characters to others, leaving some in the dark for weeks – but by the end of the first season, I was salivating for more. It doesn’t have that out-of-the-gate polish that Lost and Heroes boasted, but there’s something incredibly cool and broadcast-worthy going on here.