Terrorism surrounds a town in ‘Jericho’

Times Staff Writer

Like a land-locked “Lost,” the new CBS serial series “Jericho” strands a town full of people right in the middle of the country, out on the Great Plains, as a mushroom cloud appears on the horizon and all communication is lost. And the important thing here, as in any puzzle show, is not knowing what happened but not knowing what happened.

Snippets of radio broadcasts hint at nonspecific escalating “global violence” and “extreme reaction” and the heard-not-seen president (vaguely Bush-like) burbles the word “terrorism” just before turning into static. But there are no specific details offered, nor enemy proposed. It’s probably not Joshua, at any rate.

Overlaid on this scenario, or vice versa, is the evergreen tale of a prodigal’s return. (That’s “evergreen” in the sense of, like, an artificial Christmas tree.) The mysteries begin early -- pre-apocalypse, or whatever it is -- as wayward son/black sheep Skeet Ulrich returns to his hometown of Jericho, Kan., via a montage of handsome location shots, after five blank years away. He’s out to claim some money his grandfather left him; what plans he has for it doting mother Pamela Reed seems to know, but neither mother nor son speak them aloud, and Ulrich has a different story for everyone he meets as to where he’s spent those five years. So, you know, something’s up.

Standing between Skeet and his money is father (and Jericho mayor) Gerald McRaney, who was “Major Dad” some TV generations ago. Grandpa was mayor too, and within two episodes Ulrich is well on his way to becoming Alpha Male in the New Town Order -- not that it’s a job he’s running for -- having already rescued a good portion of the citizenry from one disaster or another. He seems to have a lot of special knowledge too -- he performs an emergency tracheotomy on a schoolgirl using a penknife and a bunch of juice-box straws and has a working familiarity with dynamite.


Also strangely in the know is Lennie James, the only black man in sight (and one of a surprising number of British actors playing American this year), which makes him mysterious to begin with. James’ character, Robert Hawkins, is new in town and seems to know just about everything you’re supposed to do in case of a nuclear attack and just about everything else too, including Morse Code. So you’ll want to keep an eye on him.

Surprisingly, no one has yet screamed “We’re all going to die!” Though it’s been some time now since thoughts of nuclear war furrowed my brow, there is still, for someone raised on drop drills and zones of impact, something spooky about seeing it realized. (The digital mattes are very prettily done.) And the armageddon “Jericho” seems to propose is oddly closer to the one I was raised on than the current scenarios of dirty bombs and exploding shampoo.

But this is not an ideological drama, like John Milius’ 1984 paranoid patriotic romp “Red Dawn,” in which plucky American youth defend the Homeland from invading Russians. Nor is it an attempt to realistically portray the aftermath of a nuclear war, as in “The Day After,” the ABC TV movie -- also set (partly) in Kansas and watched by an audience of something like 100 million -- which cost me a couple of nights’ sleep back in 1983. (Ah, how carefree those days seem now.)

If the Awful Truth of the Global Meltdown is the big carrot “Jericho” dangles before you, it is no more compelling than the question of which of the available good-looking girls Ulrich is going to get close to.


He’s already exchanged shy smiles with school teacher Sprague Grayden (“Six Feet Under”), but he’s got old business with golden-blond Ashley Scott too, and, though she’s a longshot here and a little young for him, I wouldn’t totally count out Shoshannah Stern (“Weeds”), the deaf kid sister of Ulrich’s old best friend. It is nice to think that even after everything goes to pot, romance will survive.

Ulrich has a lazy charm not wholly obscured by the worried, distracted or pained expressions he’s required to wear as he runs from here to there and back again. I can see that people might tune in to this thing just to look at and listen to him for an hour (or his portion thereof) every week.

McRaney too is pleasant company -- “pleasant” seems a little out of context here, and in fact he’s supposed to be a bit sharp, but he brings a bit of sitcomical wit into the mix and is a cool voice of caution and reason among the hysteria, like Brian Keith in “The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!” “Are we going to use our imagination to solve problems or to cause them?” he asks. You could ask yourself that every day, usefully.




Where: CBS

When: 8 to 9 tonight


Rating: TV-PG-LV (may be unsuitable for young children, with advisories for coarse language and violence)