Review: 'Jericho'

For its first 10 minutes, CBS' "Jericho" is the most banal of prodigal son returns stories, as 32-year-old Jake (Skeet Ulrich) journeys back home to Jericho, Kansas to make amends and collect his inheritance. Things go a little bit haywire when residents of Jericho spy a mushroom cloud billowing above Denver and it becomes clear that America and possibly the world is under nuclear attack. How the town comes to grips with the epic tragedy and with their own ability to keep on living appears to be the focus of the show.

Here are some handy tips on how to survive Wednesday's (Sept. 20) "Jericho" premiere:

Try Not to Get "Lost":
Although it's airing on CBS, "Jericho" seems much more like an ABC sort of show, specifically like "Lost" and "Invasion." It's the portrait of a tight-knit community under duress and there are hints at secrets and community tensions that predate the nuclear attack. Part of why "Invasion" and "Lost" found instant followings within the Internet-fueled genre communities was the hint of a mythology beyond that which can be explained rationally. The show's creators haven't fully tipped their hand, but thus far there are no unseen monsters or aliens and it's unlikely that zombies are about to sweep the country. Will the absence of those elements leave viewers content to wait until 9 p.m. for their serialized drama fix?

Respect Your Elders:
It's been a decade since "Scream" opened and superficial critics and unscrupulous teenage girls attempted to crown Skeet Ulrich as the new Johnny Depp. Thankfully, Depp returned to claim his mantle and Ulrich vanished. Although he's the show's ostensible star, he looks uncertain throughout, though perhaps his flat dialogue readings and blank stares are a reaction to the startling attacks. Don't expect much more from female lead Ashley Scott as Jake's former flame, though co-stars Sprague Grayden and Shoshannah Stern contribute more energy on the fringes. No, the show's real stars are its older cast members, particularly the bearded Gerald McRaney as the town mayor and Jake's father. It's amazing the impact McRaney's villainous "Deadwood" turn has had on his career -- suddenly he seems authoritative and commanding in a way that he never did before. He's well paired with on-screen wife Pamela Reed and a slew of recognizable but unnamable character actors. That's probably not the news CBS wanted to hear if they were counting on hooking a younger demographic.

Drink Lots of Fluids ...
Preferably alcoholic. Although the "Jericho" pilot was directed by blockbuster feature helmer Jon Turteltaub ("National Treasure"), the first episode is disturbingly shoddy on every technical level. The town, which will have to become a major character eventually, is utterly generic as are all of the interiors, which is appropriate given that the characters are all exposition-spewing composites. Because we don't know any of the characters, seeing them under duress lacks clout, especially when their reactions to the extreme situation is straight out of the "people under stress turn on each other and shriek a lot" playbook. And we don't know the characters because writer Turteltaub and writer Stephen Chbosky are juggling more drama -- Escaped convicts! Emergency road-side surgery! Dead crows! Suspicious African American strangers! -- than they can handle.

Don't Expect Immediate Rescue:
It's important to give credit where credit's due. After a disjointed and boring pilot, "Jericho" gets better in its second episode, perhaps because it becomes even more "Lost"-esque as characters keep popping out of the woodwork with unexpected and helpful skills and Jake transforms into a heroic martyr to rival Matthew Fox's Jack. The second episode also has the advantage of a time-sensitive plot (impending radioactive rain).

Make Sure All of the TVs in Your Household are Covered ... With Other Channels
The second episode only barely rises to the level of mediocre, suggesting that "Jericho" is a show that's going to require a lot of patience and at lot of faith in the creative team. While not facing quite a logjam as vicious as Tuesday nights at 8 p.m., "Jericho" has to go against TV's best reality show ("America's Next Top Model"), a relentlessly promoted set of NBC comedies ("30 Rock" and that other awful thing it's paired with) and FOX's "Bones," which already has some of the genre cred "Jericho" will need to survive. It wouldn't be surprising to see "Jericho" come tumbling down in a hurry.

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