Future historians of pop detritus will spend countless hours poring over old episodes of Lost, the challenging, intricate action-drama that briefly promised to transform network television for the better. Its genre-defying debut in 2004 marked a cultural watershed, and its massive early success forced every other network to react. And so, one can only assume, some genius at CBS figured, “Why don’t we take Lost and set it in small-town Kansas! Better still, why don’t we save some money and give it production values that make the show look like early MacGyver?” The result of this inspired musing was Jericho, a post-apocalyptic soap opera that’s just been released on DVD.
Lost only elliptically evokes the never-ending War on Terror, but Jericho takes square aim at our darkest fears. In the pilot episode, the townsfolk discover that Denver was most likely destroyed by a nuke, and that Atlanta and quite possibly other cities have also gone up in smoke. Was it a foreign invasion? Al-Qaida? No one knows. Or rather, almost no one knows. Robert Hawkins, supposedly an ex-cop from St. Louis and a newcomer to town, clearly knows more than he lets on. Over the course of the first season, a conspiracy that extends to the highest levels of government—engineered by a shadowy, suspiciously Cheney-like figure lurking in an undisclosed location—slowly unfolds. (Somewhat awkwardly, the mystery unfolds between scenes lifted from a slightly racier version of 7th Heaven. We’ll get back to that.)
The series is premised on the decidedly contrarian notion that three hours of Kevin Costner’s 1997 mega-flop The Postman, in which a doughty band of postal carriers defeat neofascist survivalists to rebuild the USA,wasn’t nearly enough. As if this alone didn’t doom Jericho, consider its cast, which suggests a WPA-style program designed to keep underemployed veterans of the Lifetime network off the streets. Whereas Lost searched far and wide for top-notch character actors, the creators of Jericho exhumed Gerald “Major Dad” McRaney, a man best known for his ability to tolerate Delta Burke’s wild mood swings, to play Mayor Johnston Green. Skeet Ulrich (you might remember him as an uncredited “Thug” in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) plays Johnston’s son Jake Green, an erstwhile ne’er-do-well who ends up stuck in his hometown after the attacks. Jake soon becomes an all-purpose emo-action-adventurer who wrestles with bad guys and his inner demons, all without ever so much as arching an eyebrow. With this cast and the show’s potentially loopy plot, you might say Jericho represents a perfect storm of drecky TV badness. And it does. But it’s also really, really good.
Consider how easy it would have been to make Jericho a comparatively endless version of The Day After, a mind-numbing meditation on nuclear winter. Instead, it plays as a Capra-esque fable about smarts, stick-to-it-iveness, and the virtues of small-town America. When the good people of Jericho discover that most of America’s big cities have been destroyed, the town manages to fend for itself. And there’s a lot of fending to do, whether from roving mercenaries who claim to be bearers of good news (they’re not), starving refugees fleeing nuclear fallout (there’s a lot more where they came from), or even from the closest town, which covets Jericho’s precious salt mine. Salt deficiency, after all, is deadly—and who doesn’t love home-dried jerky?
There are threats to the town’s stability from within, as well. From the very first episode, there are signs of dissension, mostly due to the grandstanding of Jericho mini-mogul Brad Anderson, who covets Mayor Green’s job. There’s even a brief moment when it looks as though the town could tip over into rioting, looting, and total chaos.
But the town perseveres thanks to the quiet authority of Mayor Green. The people of Jericho aren’t saints by any means, but they’re led by a smart and capable family who set the right tone in a world gone mad. This is not to say the Greens are perfect, or that Jericho is Mayberry. Eric Green, Jake’s buttoned-down brother, has toiled in Johnston’s shadow as his deputy mayor. He’s also been two-timing his wife with the town bartender. Jake, meanwhile, is cozying up to his former flame Emily, who is also the estranged daughter of the town bandit. (I hate it when that happens.) These domestic dramas tend to be madcap and cute rather than serious and gritty, but they’re also, for the most part, believable.
Perhaps Jericho’s most impressive accomplishment is that itmanages to be wholesome without being preachy. The show doesn’t exalt the rich and the famous, or even the powerful. Instead, it gives pride of place to neighbors, and to the everyday decency that makes a community work. Jericho, Kansas,is America at its best. At the risk of getting too highfalutin, Jericho is a rebuke to the shallow cynicism that pervades our politics and our pop culture. Only Jericho can save our democracy! Now I’ve gone too far.
Jericho’s flawsstem from a structural problem—the clash of high concept and low budget. For some, the lesson of Lost was that highbrow television could make it on a broadcast network, and that a blockbuster hit didn’t have to be all things to all people. By choosing to alienate some viewers—It’s too complicated!—you could make mouth-breathing fanatics out of the cognoscenti. But for others, the lesson of Lost was that it was blown out of the water by American Idol,and later by CBS’s brain-dead Criminal Minds. Why take any chances? Instead of making Jericho a daring drama with pricey special effects and a first-rate cast, why not cut corners? And why rip off one smash hit when you hedge your bets by ripping off three or four? So, instead of just Lost in Kansas, we get Lost in Kansas, plus post-apocalyptic 24 (terrorist intrigue), irradiated Grey’s Anatomy (weepy hospital melodrama), and a dash of NCIS (patriotic glory). I happen to think it all holds together, but it’s no wonder the show struck many viewers as a confusing mishmash.
We’re all familiar with television that is “so bad it’s good,” like old episodes of American Gladiators (go, Nitro!) or many of today’s reality hits, whether I Love New York or Beauty and the Geek. Loving one of these shows demonstrates that you have a wry, ironic sensibility. Television that is “good,” by contrast, merits lengthy discussion during first dates. These are personal favorites you advertise, and, whatever the genre, they tend to be beautifully produced. I’m thinking of shows like Arrested Development, Veronica Mars, and of course the full complement of brainy cable dramas—The Sopranos, Big Love, Dexter, etc.
Jericho isn’t “good” by these lofty standards. But it’s not “so bad it’s good,” either. Loving Jericho isn’t tongue-in-cheek embarrassing; it’s just embarrassing. Having loudly proclaimed Jericho’s virtues in mixed company, I know this for a fact. Instead, Jericho is both bad and good at the same time. That is, it’s bad enough to induce frequent groaning and eye-rolling (damn it, all Jake ever wanted was his father’s love!), yet just good enough to inspire high-minded theorizing (how dependent are we on our technology?). The same can be said of the new sci-fi classics like Babylon 5 and Stargate: SG-1, shows that aimed low yet kept exceeding expectations. Both shows eventually found their level on basic cable, where a modest audience equals a minor hit.
Earlier this year, CBS canceled Jericho due to low ratings. Plucky Jericho fans across the country immediately launched a guerrilla campaign to keep the show on the air, a campaign that for reasons too obscure to explain involved shipping enormous quantities of peanuts to the network. This massive outpouring of fan support led CBS to reconsider, and the show will return as a midseason replacement, with a season’s worth of story lines crammed into a handful of episodes. This may appease the diehard fans, but it’s unlikely to reel in any new viewers, and Jericho’s future can’t be said to be bright. That’s too bad, because it made me laugh and it made me cry. I’m not proud of this, but I’m not kidding, either.