'Jericho' Finds New Life in Nuclear Winter


Declared dead in May, revived in June and filmed from July until September, "Jericho" returns to the CBS schedule on Tuesday, Feb. 12. This serious tale of a small Kansas town's fight for survival in the wake of a domestic nuclear attack may not exactly brighten up the bleak midwinter, but it's definitely an early valentine for the show's dedicated fans.

When the cancellation of "Jericho" was announced, those fans, inspired by a scene in the show, said, "Nuts!" to the decision, backing up the words with thousands of pounds of peanuts shipped to CBS.

Executives retreated from their position and ordered up seven episodes to be used as a midseason replacement. Since the strike by the Writers Guild of America severely disrupted prime-time production, having fresh episodes of a show with a loyal fan base is at the least a lucky break for CBS.

But on this late August day on the "Jericho" sets in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley -- a little more than two months before the beginning of the strike -- everybody is already feeling fortunate.

Skeet Ulrich, who plays Jake Green, a prodigal son turned Jericho's military leader, doesn't attribute the show's survival to support from the entertainment press.

"To be quite honest," he says, "from a cast perspective, we didn't feel like we had anyone on our side last year. ... I would have to say, 90 percent of the things we read were negative. This year, it feels like people have switched sides and are now behind us. I've always loved being the underdog."

He adds, "I'm very proud of the fact that the show made it without the 'Entertainment Tonights,' without the press that 'Heroes' gets or a lot of those shows."

Jake and his brother, physician Eric (Kenneth Mitchell), are mourning the loss of their father, former Mayor Johnston Green (Gerald McRaney). He was shot in a battle between Jericho and neighboring New Bern, which covets Jericho's resources, including a salt mine and farmland.

Involved in an equally dangerous but more covert conflict is Robert Hawkins (Lennie James), a CIA agent tasked with retrieving the only unexploded nuclear bomb out of a group of stolen Russian warheads deployed by terrorists. Out of necessity, he has revealed his secrets (or at least some of them) to Jake, and the two are working together.

As the new season opens, the war between Jericho and New Bern has come to a head, and there's a new player in the mix. Esai Morales plays Army Major Beck, a representative of a provisional U.S. government headquartered in Cheyenne, Wyo., representing about half the country.

After months in the post-nuclear wilderness, Jericho, it seems, has rejoined America, but just what sort of America remains to be seen.

"His job is to stop the insurgency," says Morales, decked out in Army camouflage, "make order between these two towns that are now warring."

This brings Beck into conflict with Jake and New Bern's commander, Constantino (Timothy Omundson).

"There's a scene that's coming up," Morales says, "where Jake's driven by righteous indignation over his father's untimely death, and I understand that, but in this case, my job is to ensure that there will be no vigilantism; there will be no revenge killings -- period.

"The problem is, his father's already dead, and he doesn't want to rest until Constantino is dead. As much as I understand that, that's not going to happen, if I can help it.

"I'm here to do multiple things: keep the peace in this town, restore order, and carry out an investigation into the whereabouts of the fifth bomb and the terrorists in control of it."

Obviously, this task puts him squarely in Hawkins' path.

"[Hawkins'] goodness or badness is still ambiguous," says the British James of his character. "But a bit more of his secret is out. It's a bit less about hiding the secret, and a bit more about, how does he use the means that he has now? He's very entrenched in Jericho. His team has been all but annihilated, so he has to rebuild his team. That starts with Jake and spreads out to other residents of Jericho.

"He's in a situation where they're all right when they do what he tells them to do, and it all goes well. The problem with the untrained is when it goes badly and they have to improvise. That's where he gets found out."

The "Jericho" creative team had only seven episodes to continue a large and complex story.

"There's a finite number of pages that you have in that number of episodes," says producer Jonathan Steinberg, whose credits include writing "Why We Fight," the first-season finale. "We had some pretty ambitious ideas for what season two was going to be, but we had to distill it into, 'What is a coherent, seven-episode arc of a story, that we can tell, that we can do well?'

"So we did that."

As for the season-two finale, Steinberg says, "It will be what you want it to be. If you desperately want to see more show, it's going to be a cliffhanger. It will be resolution of sorts, but it will promise a lot more story after that.

"So, as completely a nonanswer of an answer as that was, I wouldn't necessarily say it's a cliffhanger, but it is certainly not a wrap-up."

As a Londoner who grew up with the reality of IRA bombings, James has a unique perspective on the resilience of Jericho and the persistence of everyday life.

"When the IRA were blowing up London," he says, "the thing that made you feel safe was the ordinariness of your life. If you got back to the bits that were ordinary, then they weren't winning.

"That, to a certain extent, is the spirit of Jericho."

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