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With the official start of the 2006-07 season less than three months away, the drumbeats have begun by the networks to tout their new comedies and dramas. What should you keep your eye out for? What should you avoid at all costs? While it's still a little early for full reviews (some recasting and reshooting will be done on a good chunk of them), we thought we'd spend the next month or so previewing what's in store for the upcoming season. Each day we'll look at one of the 39 new series set to premiere this season and go over our initial impressions after viewing the pilot.
There's no particular order here, just whatever's next on the stack of tapes. So without further ado, here's today's entry:
(Wednesdays at 8:00/7:00c this fall)
The network's description: "JERICHO (Wednesday, 8:00-9:00 PM, ET/PT) is a drama about what happens when a nuclear mushroom cloud suddenly appears on the horizon, plunging the residents of a small, peaceful Kansas town into chaos, leaving them completely isolated and wondering if they're the only Americans left alive. Fear of the unknown propels Jericho into social, psychological and physical mayhem when all communication and power is shut down. The town starts to come apart at the seams as terror, anger and confusion bring out the very worst in some residents. But in this time of crisis, as sensible people become paranoid, personal agendas take over and well-kept secrets threaten to be revealed, some people will find an inner strength they never knew they had and the most unlikely heroes will emerge. Skeet Ulrich ("Scream"), Gerald McRaney ("Ike: Countdown to D-Day"), Ashley Scott ("Dark Angel"), Pamela Reed ("Proof of Life"), Kenneth Mitchell ("The Recruit"), Lennie James ("Sahara"), Sprague Grayden ("Six Feet Under"), Michael Gaston ("Prison Break") and Erik Knudsen ("Saw II") star."
What did they leave out: It's a surprisingly realistic take on what should be a fantastical premise. Also look for Alicia Coppola and Alex Carter in potentially recurring roles.
The plot in a nutshell: Jake Green (Skeet Ulrich) is returning home to Jericho, Kansas for what he hopes will be a brief family reunion. It seems his grandfather has just died and he's back to collect his share of the will, much to the chagrin of his father (Gerald McRaney) - the town's mayor, currently in the middle of a re-election campaign - and his brother (Kenneth Mitchell). And despite being left the lion's share of his grandfather's fortune, his father has been named the trust's proxy and he's not willing to sign everything over to a son that's been off the grid for so long (we're never told where Jake has been and he tells different stories to different people). A frustrated Jake storms off - and despite pleas by his mother (Pamela Reed) and an "only on TV" chance encounter with his schoolteacher ex Emily Sullivan (Ashley Scott), now engaged to a successful banker - he decides to leave town for good. But fate decides to intervene in the form of a nuclear blast as a mushroom cloud appears over nearby Denver, knocking out the power grid and sending the locals into a slow burning chaos. Among the problems - a bus load of kids and their teacher (Sprague Grayden) have gone missing and the locals are calling for the mayor's head; Dale Turner (Erik Knudsen), a latchkey kid, gets a message that his mother has died in the blast - from a nuke on the other side of the country; Mayor Green's rival Gray Anderson (Michael Gaston) is caught in the middle of potential looters at a gas station where a mysterious ex-cop (Lennie James) offers assistance; another bus - this time carrying convicts from a nearby prison is found empty; and Jake himself is injured in a car wreck with a rubbernecking driver. As one would expect, the various plots begin to cross paths with Jake being forced into the reluctant hero role as he stumbles across the missing children.
What works: This isn't "Category 6" or "10.5" or any of the other "disaster" TV movies but rather a realistic effort to show how a small town would react to a nationwide nuclear attack. The producers wisely sidestep any political issues - an unspecified president is briefly heard giving an address on the war on terror shortly before the attack - and cleverly answer the obvious questions - radios and cell phones can't get through, leaving the town literally in the dark, while a final reveal shows us what's actually at the edge of town. The best parts of the show however are the smaller character moments as the mayor (McRaney's awesomeness could wind up rivaling "24's" David Palmer) puts on a strong face against growing resentment from the locals; Dale initially appears to be looting his boss's store but is revealed to actually be helping her; and a group of scared kids prove to be resourceful when one of them is injured. Initially what appears to be a family drama about a black sheep come home grows into a surprisingly effective ensemble about a town trying to stay strong against the unknown.
What doesn't: A lot of the show's plot hinges on TV's always annoying brand of coincidence - Jake just happens to appear in town before the attack, just happens to stumble upon the missing kids, just happens to have the military training to help an injured girl, just happens to run into his ex, etc., etc. And it's not limited to Jake either - Emily's fiance just happens to be arriving on a plane to Denver when the attack strikes, Dale's mom just happens to be leaving a message when the blast hits, a bus full of convicts just happens to go missing the same time the kids do, etc., etc. It's this daisy chain of coincidences that makes the plot often far more fantastic than the core premise of a nuclear attack on America. Thankfully a lot of these gripes are offset by its more interesting aspects, namely how usually smart people can make rash, irrational decisions in certain situations and how even smarter people can help turn the tide against making those very judgments. One hopes as the show goes on it will embrace those aspects rather than making sure its far-fetched ducks are in a row.
The challenges ahead: Can CBS actually launch a serialized, non-procedural drama?