Jericho: Monty Brinton/CBS
Gillian Flynn
September 19, 2006 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Jericho has the distinction of being the first TV drama to use a Gap Band song as its basic plotline. I speak, naturally, of ”You Dropped a Bomb on Me,” and the mystery of Jericho is who did the bombing, which cities were hit, and just how screwed are the survivors?

Skeet Ulrich (Scream) defies his destiny — which once meant fading from view in some special dreamy corner of the film universe, alongside might-have-beens like Eddie and the Cruisers‘ Michael Paré — by landing the starring role of prodigal son Jake Green. Secretive Jake returns to his tiny hometown of Jericho, Kan., just in time for what appears to be a nuclear holocaust. A mushroom cloud blooms ominously in the distance — looks like Denver — and the whole town spins into freaked-out survival mode. Calming the panicked masses is Jake’s dad, the town mayor, played by the genial-stern Gerald McRaney. McRaney, after a fascinating stint as the efficiently murderous George Hearst on Deadwood, has certainly earned a respite from Major Dad jokes. His Mayor Dad (sorry) character seems based on the striding, calm figure Rudy Giuliani cut right after 9/11. How exactly he fathered wispy Ulrich is another question. Then again, this town is filled with every type of character, from Ulrich’s love interest, a grade-school teacher who knows her way around an engine (Sprague Grayden), to a former cop (Lennie James) seriously (and somewhat suspiciously) well-versed in disaster protocol.

Jericho works when it sticks to the eerie surreality of a nuclear attack: A storm bearing radioactive rain rolls in from the west; animals flee in dying packs; clueless citizens scour for information in Cold War-era books like Our Friend the Atom. The show, unfortunately, flops about in its first two episodes, leaning too heavily on the action-adventure stuff, perhaps a twitch from exec producer Jon Turteltaub (National Treasure). Ulrich plays psycho townies and frontiersmen just fine (as Scream and Into the West attest); his slacker detachment doesn’t translate as well for the action-hero business (watch no more than three minutes of Chill Factor to verify).

One particularly melodramatic scene has Ulrich rescuing a busload of smashed-up schoolchildren and performing a homemade tracheotomy on a little girl with drinking straws — causing him to yell the unfortunate line: ”Who else has a juice box?!” In another sidetracked moment, he must save his ex-girlfriend (Dark Angel‘s Ashley Scott) from escaped inmates — which culminates in distinctly cheesy, ’80s, Tango & Cash-variety gunplay, with accompanying music that can only be described as shoot-out/funk/Jazzercise. May I suggest sticking to the possible destruction of the world? It’s a bit more riveting.

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