There are manifold mysteries at play on the end-of-days action show Jericho (CBS, Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET), foremost among them the matter of its reappearance for a sophomore season. When CBS moved to cancel it last spring, the show’s fans rose up in numbers enough to win it a stay of execution. In a particularly press-savvy move, the faithful sent 40,000 pounds of peanuts to the network’s offices, which was either an attempt to play off a line of dialogue recapitulating Gen. McAuliffe’s message to the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge—“Nuts!”—or an attempt to trigger anaphylactic shock among programming executives. Either way, you’ve got to admire that kind of passion. You’ve also got to scrunch your face up and wonder what inspires it.
The series unfolds in the town of Jericho, Kan., and though the prairie land looks an awful lot like the hills of Southern California, the heartland values are plain to see. The women of Jericho are wholesomely pretty and reliably tough, and it falls to them to keep their mates’ impulsiveness in check. The men are stout and rugged, with the notable exception of the protagonist, Jake Green, who, as played by Skeet Ulrich, scurries through the show with puppy-dog eyes and stray-cat everything else. Jake began the pilot episode as a prodigal son slouching back into town after a long and shadowy absence, but—this being a realm abounding in red herrings, false leads, and quick reversals—he soon emerged a gold-hearted hero—saving busloads of children from imminent peril, rallying the populace in a time of fear, and all that. He’s an Everydude in a bowl cut and denim jacket.
The post-9/11 nightmare animating the show involves the annihilation of a couple dozen of your favorite American cities. The government is telling the citizenry that this is the work of Iran and North Korea, but then the government isn’t what it used to be. (All is divided into three parts: Lands east of the Mississippi are governed from Columbus, Ohio; a new president seated in Cheyenne, Wyo., flies a Bizarro-World Stars and Stripes over the West and declares the emergence of the Allied States of America; then, as ever, there’s the Republic of Texas.) Jake’s new neighbor Robert Hawkins, who professes to be an undercover CIA agent, holds that the bombs were detonated by a coalition of extremists. From week to week, the matters of rogue states, looses nukes, and hairy conspiracies fall by the wayside as Jericho concerns itself with emergency-management plotlines and militia fantasies and love stories gently developing behind gingham-print curtains.
Whom can you trust? What can you do? Where the hell is this going? Like Alias or The X-Files, Jericho has enough wheel-within-wheels, double agents, and ad hoc alliances to draw in viewers who love a long-playing puzzle. Like Lost, it is never in danger of achieving excessive clarity, and these ambiguities—a militaristic bent that sits besides skepticism about authority, an inspiring civic-minded cheerfulness that doesn’t conceal pessimism about human nature—give it a Rorschach-blot quality. You can imagine John McCain nationalists, Mike Huckabee fundamentalists, and Ron Paul Libertarians all getting behind the show and its singular imagining an all-American post-apocalypse.