- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Many people watch science fiction-tinged, post-apocalyptic movies and television for a wild escape from the often dreary, uneventful real world. But viewers of CBS’ post-disaster series “Jericho” will get a dose of reality as it starts its second season tonight at 10.

A lame duck president who’s taking orders behind the scenes from a bald guy in Wyoming. A private contractor cum mercenary who seems to be above the law. A shady company with government ties hired to do reconstruction amidst allegations of wrongdoing.

Sound familiar?

You can’t blame the writers’ strike for the thinly veiled stand-ins for President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Blackwater and Halliburton in “Jericho.” The episodes — critics were sent the first three of seven — were written beforehand.

“Jericho” started in fall 2006 with inspiration from real-life events. “Even in the worst of times, it’s possible to find the best in ourselves and in others,” intones an introductory voiceover. The show is equal parts post-September 11, with the country’s spirit of unity, and post-Hurricane Katrina, with its darker feelings of resentment.

The series shows a near future in which nuclear bombs exploded in 23 American cities in a single day. Driving away from Jericho, in western Kansas, mayor’s son Jake Green (star Skeet Ulrich) sees a mushroom cloud over Denver. Power and cell phones are knocked out, and the town is left to cope on its own, not knowing exactly what has happened and if anyone else has survived.

It soon finds that others have, however, and when season one ended, Jericho was locked in a war with neighboring town New Bern after men from that town tried raiding Jericho’s resources, killing the mayor (Gerald McRaney).

Jericho’s fate might have been left up in the air permanently if it hadn’t been for the show’s exceedingly enthusiastic fans. The series started out with mid-level ratings, which only got worse when CBS put it on a three-month hiatus. (Serial dramas don’t fare too well when there are long pauses between episodes, as the creators of “Lost” can tell you.)

After the show was canceled last May, fans sent the network’s president 40,000 pounds of peanuts in protest. (Jake repeatedly used the expression “nuts.”) Less than a month later, CBS agreed to produce seven more episodes.

How will those vociferous fans react to the new, ripped-from-the-headlines episodes?

Tonight’s premiere begins with the military arriving and ending the standoff between Jericho and New Bern. “The nightmare’s over. Order will be restored,” declares Major Beck (“NYPD Blue’s” Esai Morales).

It’s six months after the nuclear attacks, and a new government has been established. The states west of the Mississippi now belong to the Allied States of America, headquartered in Cheyenne, Wyo. A junior but charismatic senator has become president. The old government was “torn by indecision” about what to do about the attacks, and the “international community refused to act.” So one man became the decider. (He doesn’t look much like our current commander in chief, though.)

He says two axis of evil states, Iran and North Korea, carried out “the September attacks.” But as we learned last season, that might not be the truth. Robert Hawkins (Lennie James) claims he’s a CIA agent and has proof that the attacks were carried out by extremists within America itself.

What we have here, says Hawkins, is “a government conspiracy that will stop at nothing to protect itself.”

The conspiracy will be a bigger part of season two, and that should please “Jericho” fans. Judging from posts on Internet forums, the “Jericho” fan (who likes to think of the show as “thinking person’s programming”) loves conspiracy theories — many viewers also watch “24,” “Lost” and “Heroes.”

In fact, the fans love conspiracies so much, they have plenty of them to suggest why the show got canceled in the first place.

“I have a theory that there has been political maneuvering to keep Jericho off until after the Presidential primaries,” one viewer writes on CBS’ official Jericho Wiki. “Some people would like us to forget that we have an enemy who is within the country.”

Another darkly declares, “I’m not big on conspiracy’s [sic] but I do believe that there is a vicious Politically Correct movement today that wants to remove any Pro-America type programs from the public view.” (One wonders what the fans who applaud “Jericho” as a “pro-America” program will think when they see the Bush-Cheney-like characters take a few subtle hits in the new season.)

Our political leaders may spend their time arguing about how to deal with terrorism on the other side of the globe. But in season one, “Jericho” reminded us that sometimes our worst enemies are part of our own communities. In the new season, it does the same thing — but with a much more politically allusive message attached.

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