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view of the north shore Critter Pond, KOA Canandaigua NY [c] 2009 jcb

Wither goest thou, Jericho?

Image hosted by Webshots.com BY STEVEOETTINGIt's been fifty-seven years since Pat Frank wrote Alas, Babylon. Would Frank approve of the new CBS drama Jericho? Both book and show use the same premise: regular people in an isolated small town cope with the aftermath of a major nuclear attack on the United States. Babylon is regularly taught in colleges around the country. I'm not sure that Jericho can last long enough to matter that much. (If you haven't read the book, and you like post-Apocalyptic stories--like Stephen King's The Stand--head for your favorite used-book outlet now!)

My wife and I saw the long trailer for CBS's hot new television show at the movie theater. I'm not sure how many TV properties get that level of promotion, but it certainly indicates strong network support for this one. Jericho looks like a high-quality drama with solid writing and a big budget. Let's face it: this is a major undertaking, on the level of the old mini-series. Huge cast, lots of potential sub-plots, expensive location shots--this kind of show requires a serious commitment. That also means this show needs a big audience, and it needs to attract and retain that audience right out of the gate.

Tall order for executive producers Jon Turteltaub, Stephen Chbosky, and Carol Barbee: find and keep a big enough following to justify the big investment. I'm sure they know we're out here. By "we" I mean those of us who cannot stomach even one more iteration of CSI: Wherever or Law & Order: XYZ. "We" are the ones who've faithfully watched the better shows that TV Guide inevitably labels "the best show you're not watching". Which is, of course, nearly always the kiss of death. Those programs have large ensemble casts, talented writing teams, stories that evolve from week to week--and big budgets. Much bigger than the paltry sums required to stage so-called reality shows, but not larger than the costs involved in the legal and medical dramas. These other, non-formula dramas are always riskier than the copycat groups. There's no existing audience ready and waiting for a "something different" offering. The investors have to woo this elusive viewership with aggressive marketing campaigns, like running promo's among the trailers for upcoming theatrical releases. Then they have to convince us to stay. That's the tricky part.

What do "we" really want? That's the question guys like Turteltaub hope they can answer. Based on some of the elements I've seen in alternative-premise shows, here's a sampling of answers to "what we want":

  • Stories that aren't about lawyers or doctors or forensics. (Lost, for example)
  • Intriguing sub-plots that span several episodes. (As in the amazing Alias)
  • Multi-cultural ensemble casts. (Lost, again)
  • Mysterious circumstances and un-answered questions. (Lost and, especially, Alias. Whatever happened with those Rimbaldie manuscripts, anyway?)
  • Hesitant romances slowly kindled between unlikely, but appealing, partners. (Every successful drama in existence. And when the two cast members finally hook-up, start the count-down to the "unforgettable final episode of...")
  • Unfamiliar and interesting locales. (well, there's Lost, for example!)
  • The constant threat of impending doom. (Same example shows...)

Now let's consider what else these same successful producers seem to think "we" want:

  • Protagonists with assorted problems and issues.
  • Female leads who are so hot they should be models, not small-town characters.
  • Ditto for secondary male leads, who all apparently forget to shave every other day.
  • Unlikely developments that keep things interesting, whether believable or not.
  • More hot women in very tight clothing.
  • Adorable kids doing precocious things, despite their issues or problems.
  • Darkness, dark rooms, low light. (Saving electricity? Film noir?)
  • Characters with mysterious pasts and enigmatic responses to inquiries from old friends.
  • Very hot women who are sort-of interested in above mysterious menfolk, or vice-versa.

Ok, maybe I'm being a bit too cynical here. The above-listed items can be worthy conflicts and valuable eye-candy for even the most serious, high-class shows. But--big but: let's not focus on these trivial adornments. Let's make a show about something. (Yup, opposite of Seinfeld. As in: drama is the opposite of sit-com.) Jericho offers a wonderful premise on which to build a nearly endless procession of sub-plots beneath the main story-line. Friends, Americans, countrymen--can you even imagine what the hell you'd do if you saw a mushroom cloud on the horizon?? Who needs silly, trivial elements when you have 'nukuler' explosions nearby?? Seriously.

I watched Jericho, episode one with huge anticipation. I wasn't entirely disappointed. This could be a great show, a blockbuster hit. But do we need a bumbling mayor and an incompetent sheriff to make it work? Did a schoolbus full of kids on some weird field trip have to crash? Did a freakin' prison bus have to crash, too? And why is it always dark? (Sure, the lights are off; but the sun isn't broken.) Why does the mayor's son have to be a mystery-boy? Could "where-have-you-been?"-boy's former girlfriend be any hotter? Do we really need a nerdy and troubled teenager, and the hot-girls who hate him? This isn't a daytime soap, after all. Jericho can, and should, be a riveting drama. Simply pose the question--what would you do??--and answer it, one week at a time.

We're up to episode three now. The citizens of small-town Jericho are figuring out how to cope, and alliances are emerging. There's surely trouble a-brewing: Who else is out there? What will these people eat when the food runs out? How will they all keep the peace, despite their natural differences? Is the government gone? Is the air safe to breath? Some of these questions have already emerged, as expected. Some may even get answered. Mingle a few smaller mysteries into the main plot. Feature a couple of fine-looking lasses, among the normal mix of real and regular females. Allow the mayor and the sheriff an occasional triumph. Maybe an ordinary working guy can help solve a problem or two; he could even be a few pounds overweight and recently-shaved. Let the sun shine for at least half the show's sixty minutes. Draw the eager audience into the authentic terror of a post-apocalyptic America. No condescending distractions required. The story would speak for itself, and the ratings would be huge.

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