Save Jericho!

There’s a qualitative difference between American broadcast network TV programming and that offered by smaller cable stations. The networks (CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox) have larger budgets, much more viewers and command greater and more demanding advertisers. Because they are national and broad-based, they must also cater to a broader and less niched audience.

Cable networks, like the CW or SciFi, tend to have niche markets and smaller budgets. They pay their actors and producers less, but are content with their minority market share because although it is small, it is dependable. Stargate SG-1 is an example of a niche show that could not survive on broadcast network TV, but thrived after moving to the less demanding niche system of the SciFi channel. While the networks canceled it for sound economic reasons, SciFi ran with it and made it the longest running science fiction show in American TV history.

This brings us to a little show called Jericho. When CBS introduced Jericho last year, the show was meant to be a genre-busting monster, like ABC’s Lost. A parallel online mystery was planned, with all sorts of marketing tie-ins. But, for a lot of reasons, Jericho just didn’t have the mass appeal of Lost, and was canceled at the end of its first season.

But a dramatic and touching fan campaign, involving the delivery of tons of peanuts to the CBS offices (see, “nuts” was a theme of defiance in the show), miraculously brought Jericho back from the dead. Not since fans protested the cancellation of Star Trek in the 1960s had this been a successful tact in America.

So Jericho was brought back for a limited 7 episode run. But ratings are lower than ever –again, for a variety of reasons, including CBS positioning it at 10pm after the atrocious Big Brother. It seems unlikely that it will be renewed for a third season.

And this is where the niche markets of cable stations come in. Jericho‘s ratings, while poor for a network show, would be tremendous for a cable show. It would mean cutting salaries of some of the stars, but I hope SciFi or the CW or another station has the foresight to pick up this show, because, frankly, it’s one of the best TV dramas currently on network television (second only to the near-perfect Lost).

Pertinent to this site are two questions. First off, does Jericho qualify as science fiction and why is it being discussed on Skiffy? Jericho is about the social, emotional and political aftermath of nuclear bombs going off in middle America. It’s told from the perspective of a small town in Kansas that miraculously survives the explosions. We know what they know, and nothing more. So, strictly speaking, this is not classic science fiction, as no science has been fictionalized. But the scenario is fantastical and akin to premises plumbed by instruments of science fiction. Jericho is technically a post-apocalyptic adventure, but there’s nothing cheesy, futuristic or unbelievable about it.

Second, why is it worth saving? What makes it so great? This is hard to describe. Everything about the show, given its low budget and small scope, is done to near perfection. The stories are small but exist against an enormous political backdrop. The writing is of the highest quality. In a recent episode, a man mourns the death of his deaf sister. He is shown signing to her corpse, a scene so touching because that is how he would have communicated with her in life: the writing accurately depicts a true representation of the repercussions of death.

The characters are lovable and flawed. Our hero, Jake, has a dark secret that we do not know until circumstances pry it from him in the second season: he was involved in war crimes in Iraq. The most interesting character is a fellow named Hawking, played to perfection by Brit Lenny James. We know that Hawking was somehow involved in the bombings, but we don’t know in what capacity. Is he a good guy or a bad guy?

And the acting is tremendous. In an exchange between Hawking and an army major, dialogue and delivery were projected with such tense precision that it was like watching a verbal chess match. See, the drama of Jericho is not from the nuclear bombs or the men with guns, but from the terse and complex interactions between individual characters whose motivations and agendas are never quite clear, but which plainly matter.

The problems in the town of Jericho are small but immense. The details are important. One episode focused on how to get power back to the town, which now is the only niche of civilization for hundreds, maybe thousands, of miles. Another dealt with townsfolk hiding from the nuclear fallout blowing toward them from bombed urban centres. As winter approached, more episodes dealt with how to secure food and conserve fuel. And throughout these seemingly banal predilections, the mystery of the bombings themselves deepened, the social tensions in the town tightened, and a sudden terrifying and intriguing fact revealed itself: Hawking still has a nuclear bomb hidden in his shed.

Yet Jericho can still be subversive and, frankly, kick-ass. Want to see the Most Shocking Gunfight in TV History? Watch this, from episode #4 of Jericho‘s shortened 2nd season, as the Little Deaf Girl takes on a team of mercenaries.  Warning: major spoilers and carnage.

I cannot sing the praises of Jericho loudly enough. Here’s hoping another miracle saves it for a third season.

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