Once upon a time, movies, television and the nightly news focused heavily on the possibility of a nuclear attack—threatening to come, at the time, from Russia or another Communist nation. Schoolchildren were told to “duck and cover” under their desks during mock air raids and all attempts were made to frighten the hell out of the American populace. Tempers eventually cooled, and we haven’t heard all that much about nuclear holocaust since the end of the Cold War. That is until North Korea’s recent detonation of a nuclear device and Iran’s threat to do the same. With these hostilities currently brewing in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, and our own nuke history still vividly etched into our collective memory, CBS arrives with a television show that throws small-town America into the wake of a national nuclear attack.
The opening episode starts with an interesting question: Where has Skeet Ulrich been? Or, more precisely, where has his character (Jack Green) been? Jack comes back home to Jericho, Kansas briefly after a five-year absence to do what any normal 32-year-old without a life plan does: ask Mom and Dad for some cash. Mom (Pamela Reed) seems willing; Dad (Deadwood’s Gerald McRaney) less so. As a result, Jack drives off in a huff, eager to leave his old town behind for good—until a nuclear explosion suddenly appears on the horizon. Distracted, Jack crashes into another car and is knocked unconscious. By the time he comes to, the town has discovered the blast came from Denver and the large city has likely been destroyed. Word spreads that another explosion has detonated in Atlanta and several other major cities across the country. Hysteria ensues: a busload of school children are in danger, escaped prisoners are on the loose, uncooperative townspeople are raiding stores, the mayor delivers a heartwarming speech, and gas (no surprise here either) is getting hoarded.
Wow, those are a lot of nuclear-disaster clichés and we’re still only talking about the first episode. Future episodes present the quintessential “mysterious stranger” (Lennie James) who seems to know more than he should, Jack’s ex-girlfriend (Ashley Scott) in danger from those pesky escaped convicts, one of the most uneventful extramarital affairs I’ve ever seen on television, and more questions surrounding Jack’s missing five years—a time period that apparently changed the young delinquent into a MacGyver-type character who turns up at just the right time with just the right idea to fix any impossible conundrum. I like Ulrich’s character and his portrayal, but honestly, how many people can perform a clean tracheotomy, repair a ventilation system, organize mass evacuations, work properly with explosives and turn water into wine? Okay, he hasn’t actually done the last one—yet.
Jericho would be a better show if it weren’t so damn hammy and full of the same tired glimpses into a nuclear disaster that we’ve all seen time and time again. The show does a good job of depicting the confusion following the loss of mass communication in a technological age (though some characters’ utter ignorance about radiation poisoning seems laughable), and there’s a certain mystique surrounding the small town that sometimes makes it feel like we’re in Twin Peaks or on Wisteria Lane, but these small twists do little to improve on the often unavoidable catastrophe in television known as the predictable plot line. In fact, I’ve never been very good at predicting plots, but with this show, several early assumptions of mine have already come true. (I won’t spoil things with what I believe the ultimate twist of the series to be, just in case.)
While it’s heartening to see television tackle a pertinent topic, and one so much a part of classic Americana as nuclear disaster, Jericho refuses to go beyond the fail safe and take viewers where they haven’t been before. It’s all very reminiscent of a scene in the second episode, in which the townspeople find a trove of pamphlets from the 1950s that antiquatedly describe what to do during nuclear fallout. Just as the information and steps to avoid radioactive contamination appear outdated to the townspeople, so Jericho treads on ground we’ve already covered and should at least know how to handle more originally.