Post Nuclear Small Town America
Main Cast: Skeet Ulrich, Gerald McRaney, Lennie James, Brad Beyer, Ashley Scott
Director: John Turteltaub
Run Dates: 2006-2008
One of my favorite things about the current state of media delivery is the availability of TV on either DVD or streamed directly to my device of choice. I can only keep up with just so many programs each season and now I get the chance to go back and pick up the ones I missed. For the past few weeks I’ve been immersed in Jericho.
Jericho aired beginning in 2006 and only lasted for 29 episodes spread over 2 seasons. Normally I would say that’s too bad but the series creators Stephen Chbosky (who in 2012 will bring the popular YA novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower to the big screen), Josh Schaer and Jonathan E. Steinberg did an excellent job of turning what was probably foreseeable cancellation into an opportunity. Their good judgment turned Jericho from a truncated series into a tight, fast paced and gripping 30 hour mini-series.
Skeet Ulrich stars as Jake Green. The black sheep of the Green family, he returns to his small hometown of Jericho, Kansas after a 5 year absence. His father Johnston (Gerald McRaney) is the mayor, his brother Eric (Kenneth Mitchell) is his right hand man. The Green family is a big deal in this place and Jake’s youthful recklessness is a bitter disappointment. His return is marked by surprise but not great joy. Everything changes when the world explodes, literally, and the citizens of Jericho find themselves stranded in an uncertain, dangerous new world.
Jericho hinges on its characters. In the first episodes we meet people like Stanley Richmond (Brad Beyer) who owns Jericho’s largest farm and his deaf sister Bonnie (Shoshannah Stern), bar owner Mary Bailey (Clare Carey), school teacher Heather Lisinsky (Sprague Grayden), visiting IRS auditor Mimi Clark (Alicia Coppola) and Jake’s ex, Emily (Ashley Scott).
Also in the picture is Robert Hawkins (Lennie James) who with his family is new to Jericho and from word one we know that he is not just the new guy on the block but something much more. These people must come together and try to survive after the nuclear disaster that has crippled the country. As such, it makes sense that we need to invest in them, and heavily, if the show is going to work.
The beautiful thing about Jericho is that for the first season we do exactly that, we spend time with these people, learning their secrets, their pasts, their flaws and connections. Jake once again becomes a central figure in town as he proves that he has done a lot of growing up during his unexplained absence. He’s a natural leader but not one without baggage. Skeet Ulrich does a lot of good things with this role. He makes Jake a complicated dude, not just a bad apple or just a hero but a little of both. We frequently see the bad instincts that got Jake into trouble before trying to bubble to the surface despite his new maturity.
Outstanding supporting performances from McRaney as the level headed and sentimental Green patriarch and Kenneth Mitchell as the weak and untested brother add depth to the family dynamic. But we also need to invest in the town and Brad Beyer’s Stanley Richmond becomes the cornerstone of our relationship with the people of Jericho. A good hearted
man with a rough past, Stanley represents all that is wholesome about rural America and does it without (for the most part) being sappy or trite. Lennie James’ Robert Hawkins is the focus of intrigue. Every show needs a character that we love and hate in turn and here it’s Hawkins. We don’t know if he’s a good guy, a bad guy or something else altogether. James is terrific in this ambiguous role that solidifies as the series moves from character to plot and back.
After the first dozen episodes we know the people of Jericho. I suspect that’s also when the series creators began to realize that their days were numbered. The plot picks up pace and we begin to find out more about the world outside of Jericho, the events that happened on the day of the attacks and move into the wider scope beyond mere survival. There are excellent plot lines involving a nearby town and fighting for resources, independent “armies” trying to seize control and an overarching sense of chaos and lawlessness.
Themes of terrorism, nuclear attack, government corruption, small town values, vigilantism, fear based public policy and the twisted distinction between good and evil are omnipresent in Jericho. I suspect that one of the reasons the series did not survive is that it came too soon after 9/11. The things happening in Jericho were too easily imagined happening in the real world – a terrifying prospect. It can also be seen as critical of both public and government response to those tragedies – not something people wanted to watch for fun in 2006. Looking back it’s almost eerily prescient in some ways – it doesn’t take a genius to see real world parallels to the unscrupulous taking advantage of a dire situation for their own personal gain. But I think it was just too hard and too scary at the time. It has its share of cornball Americana moments but they’re largely overshadowed by the harsh realization that the scenario presented isn’t science fiction.
Now that some time has passed, Jericho is less scary. It isn’t any less realistic in its portrayal of the dastardly and heroic capabilities of people in general but now that the country has some distance from its real world terrorist attacks we can watch with a more critical eye. We can appreciate the overall well done characterizations, the compact and tense plot escalation and the creation of a town for whose well being we genuinely care. It isn’t a perfect program – it’s often heavy handed in its moralizing, some of the characters never really gel and subplots had to be dropped as the series was forced to reduce its focus – but it’s an interesting, absorbing watch. Know that you will not be left in the lurch with a cliff hanger ending – Chbosky and crew knew they needed to wrap up their stories and they did so with surprising efficiency and satisfying results. If you’re like me and missed Jericho the first time around, take the opportunity to check it out. I watched it on Netflix Instant Streaming, but it’s also available on DVD. 4 stars out of 5.
photos by Matthew Fenton and Mary Erickson Entertainment