Some shows -- think "Law & Order" or "CSI" or "E.R." -- can stay on the air for over a decade without ever varying what they are at their core. CBS' protean drama "Jericho" returns on Tuesday (Feb. 12) night in probably its fourth or fifth different permutation in under 25 episodes.
Although it jumped from post-apocalyptic soap opera to conspiracy mystery to survivalist thriller, "Jericho" found a dedicated core of viewers last season and it's likely that many of those fans will be perfectly happy with the show's latest incarnation -- suspense-filled civics lesson.
Remember that killer cliffhanger from that season? That unresolved climax that left fans so agitated that they pelted CBS executives with goobers til they relented and uncancelled the show? The town of Jericho, plucky underdogs with minimal artillery, were at the brink of war with the big bullies of New Bern? Never mind that stuff. Perhaps if the first season of "Jericho" had been high enough rated for an old-fashioned renewal, we could have seen the war unfold. Instead, we're less than five minutes into the premiere when Esai Morales' Major Beck walks into town and says, with significant gravitas, "The nightmare's over. Order will be restored."
That's the season's theme and it's no coincidence that the "Jericho" premiere is titled "Reconstruction" (that the episode airs on Lincoln's birthday is a total coincidence). As the premiere begins, the Cheyenne-centered government is attempting to restore order and structure with an iron fist. With the help of the shady and vertically integrated independent management group Jennings & Rall (think Halliburton, only less suspect), they control everything from finances to health care to reeducation. As the first three episodes progress, "Jericho" throws out buzz-words like "tribunes," "amnesty" and "reconciliation," while giving a dramatized lecture on constitutional freedom, journalistic integrity and, at its heart, American democracy.
It's exhausting work at times and it only occasionally gels with the swifter-moving plotlines that involve Jake ( Skeet Ulrich) and Hawkins (Lennie James) as they attempt to expose the secrets of the nuclear attack that started the show in the first place. For fans of the show's more sentimental elements, Stanley (Brad Beyer) and Mimi (Alicia Coppola) are getting ready for a wedding, so they're almost entirely separated from the main plotlines, as are the half-dozen regular cast members who were bumped to "special guest stars" under the show's conditional limited pick-up. That's why you'll discover that the characters played by folks like Sprague Grayden, Erik Knudsen and Shoshanah Stern only pop up sporadically.
Morales is the season's biggest casting addition and he's assertive and stoic in exactly the right ways to help compensate for the exit of Gerald McRaney's Johnston, who was the show's anchor. But if McRaney was also the show's heart last season, Morales' presence is a sign of the second season's less sentimental tone. Throw in recurring players Daniel Benzali and D.B. Sweeney and you get a darker, chillier "Jericho" this time around.
Like so much in the show's first season, the loftier intellectual goals of the early "Jericho" episodes are better in concept and execution. Tightly edited suspenseful set pieces sit awkwardly alongside Ulrich making pronouncements about the autonomy of the Fourth Estate. I continue to hold out hope for "Jericho," that eventually the show will find its voice and mature into it. Thus far, it remains a work-in-progress.
[Post-Script: The first three episodes were sent to critics well over a month ago and were leaked onto the Internet soon after. It boggles my mind that fans of a show that didn't generate a sufficient audience for renewal in the first place would think that the best way to convince the CBS to bring "Jericho" back for a third season would be to pass around pirated episodes weeks ahead of the airdate. CBS brought the show back in the first place because of audiences outside of the Nielsen loop, but I don't think the network is going to be monitoring pirated BitTorrented episodes as any sort of positive.]