Last year the networks’ Lost emulators seized its science fiction elements and foregrounded them more overtly than Lost ever has, largely forsaking the genre-hopping and character-based drama that makes Lost what it is. Surface, Threshold, and Invasion were all off the air by the end of the season.
This season, Lost emulation continues, but now with ensemble casts brought together by an external mystery or threat. The Nine follows the aftermath of a bank robbery that brings nine random people together, featuring regular flashbacks to the event itself as its cause and ties to the main characters is slowly revealed. JJ Abrams’s Six Degrees also centres on random people brought together. And Jericho features a small-town ensemble united in the face of a nearby nuclear explosion, with more around the country. Whether all of any of these shows last the season will be an interesting question, given that these shows are arguably closer to what has made Lost a success than any previous attempts.
Jake Green (Skeet Ulrich) is returning to Jericho, Kansas, for the first time in five years to sort out his inheritance so he can start to make something of his life. He’s estranged from his dad (Gerald McRaney) and won’t tell people where he’s been or what he’s been up to, fobbing them off with contradicting stories. As he’s leaving, a mushroom cloud appears on the horizons (a wonderfully eerie shot) and Jake hits a car. Injured, he rescues a school bus while his father, also the town mayor, tries to restore order among the panicked residents. Amidst the furore is Hawkins (Lennie James), a new resident with unusual expertise who’s surprisingly calm about the whole thing.
Jericho’s premise is simple and highly effective. Not only can we observe the impact of an indisputable but inexplicable nearby threat on a small community, but the cause and magnitude of the event fuels the mystery. So Jericho has everything going for it in principle, but in execution this pilot is sorely lacking. The pacing is far too rapid (the pilot is apparently a mere 38 minutes without ads), which is startling given that not much happens, at least in terms of establishing the show’s long-term parameters. The school bus rescue won’t feature in later plots, and the community unrest is all too predictable. I’ll try not to make too many unfair comparisons to Lost (which did enjoy a feature-length pilot), but there are no quiet, deliberate moments, such as Kate sewing up Jack’s wound, that give us a moment to breathe with these characters. Jericho tries to make up for its lack of time with the townspeople and their relationships by having everyone hug – a LOT – to clearly tell us that these people LIKE EACH OTHER, OKAY? But we don’t feel it.
The hugs may also be trying to compensate for how bland these characters are. Granted, Jericho’s setting doesn’t allow for much ethnic diversity to give audiences a little spice, but there are no quirks that emerge to differentiate and endear, or any characteristics at all really (Jericho’s idea of idiosyncrasy is a kook who thinks we’re being invaded by aliens – innovative!). There is fuel for future characterisation in Jake’s past, his relationships with his father and brother, and the enigmatic Hawkins. The now-orphaned outsider kid also has potential, and the phone message from his mother in Atlanta – cut off by a likely nuclear detonation – is one of the pilot’s few ‘awesome!’ moments. But there ain’t too many, sadly.
They’re not helped by the performances. After a nice turn in the little-seen Miracles, Skeet Ulrich is spectacularly dull here, but then he isn’t given much to do apart from save the kiddies. Sparks of naturalism and passion fleetingly emerge in his scenes, but he then seems to repress them with that vacant gaze and line delivery. Love interest Ashley Scott is the definition of ‘does the job’, but unlike Lost’s Evangeline Lilly, her stoicism doesn’t hint at soulful depths. Lennie James is pretty good, as is Gerald McRaney, but anything that makes the towering McRaney even a bit dull is a tad dicey.
There are, of course, more episodes for the show to prove itself, but these days, the great shows did start with genuinely good pilots. Running through some of the greats of late, only Veronica Mars’s pilot comes to mind as seeming like it could go either way. Not to be unfair again, but watching Studio 60 after Jericho made its conservative, conventional storytelling and style much more apparent in retrospect. We’ve just been so spoiled by TV drama lately that serviceable, ‘does the job’ stuff doesn’t really cut it any more. We’ll have to wait and see. At the very least, Jericho and its mysteries will be a fun guilty pleasure, and it could blossom into a solid show. I’ll be checking it out for a few weeks yet, as that premise is too good to dismiss straight away.