It Still Stings: The Shortened Season That “Saved” Jericho Ruined What Made It GreatPhotos Courtesy of CBS TV Features
Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:
It’s fairly rare that a fan campaign can actually manage to cajole a TV network to pick up a show that’s already been cancelled. For every handful of success stories, there are hundreds of shows that are simply axed and vanish into obscurity (or, in more cases these days, wind up having their existing seasons used to pad a streaming service’s extended catalog).
But Jericho, well, it’s one of the rare ones—though in hindsight it might’ve been better off remaining a one-season wonder.
The post-apocalyptic series ran for 22 episodes on CBS across the 2006-2007 season, and focused on the residents of a small Kansas town trying to piece together what has happened to the United States after all communication is knocked out and they see mushroom clouds in the distance. It’s basically a modern-day The Day After as it follows the immediate aftermath and challenges the residents face, plus small town drama and a few whiffs of a wider conspiracy tying it all together.
The first season drew a rabid fan base but average ratings. The show was on the bubble for a bit, and then the network opted not to pick it up for a second season. Normally that would be the end of the story, but hundreds of thousands of fans rallied with one of the most ambitious and savvy “Save Our Show” efforts of the Internet age. They flooded executives with emails, and coordinated the mailing of 20 tons of nuts (seriously) to the network’s headquarters—an inside joke from the Season 1 finale, referencing a famous historical quote from the Battle of the Bulge.
The pressure worked, and the network renewed the show for a seven-episode second season aimed at giving fans some closure and hopefully serving as a launchpad for more episodes if Season 2 was a hit (Narrator: It wasn’t). The second season drew the show’s lowest viewership ratings yet, and the network unequivocally announced it would not be returning regardless of nuts.
But watching the show’s full run now (which is streaming on Paramount+, if you’re looking for it), the second season wrecks the low-stakes drama that made the first season so compelling in the first place. Most of Season 1 focused on the town’s quest to survive, and culminated with a clash against a nearby town called New Bern with aims to invade Jericho and claim the latter’s resources as their own. In the grand scheme of a possible global nuclear war, it’s a small story, but that’s exactly what makes it so compelling. Instead of focusing on generals or the president and the global stakes, we get the small town mayor trying desperately to hold his town together, and the black sheep who returns home for a day and finds himself trapped when the world blows up around him.
The big cliffhanger ending for Season 1 isn’t about the global conspiracy and nuclear war that kicked off the action. It’s the calm moments before the firing starts up in a Civil War-style battle between Jericho’s makeshift army and the forces of New Bern, being led by a power mad sheriff on a quest for power. The start of battle is coupled with the arrival of a mysterious helicopter convoy, teasing that what’s left of the outside world could be close to intervening in their turf war.
But that tease was pretty much it when it came to the “big picture,” as Season 1 of Jericho never lost perspective on the intimate tale that was its driving narrative force. This was the saga of a town trying to survive, with stakes that felt real. That cliffhanger was a jaw-dropper, to be sure, but it was also true to the world they’d meticulously built for 22 episodes. It left the story wide open, with the idea that perhaps America survived in some form and help was finally on the way. In the eyes of the pessimists out there, the invaders finally found their way to Kansas. Regardless, it kept the stakes where they’d been all year: Jericho.
But then came the cancellation, renewal, and the all-too-brief seven episode order for Season 2. Watching those final seven episodes, it’s clear the creators knew they had a short runway to tell their story. So they seemingly condensed the next four seasons worth of plot into those seven episodes. To call it jam-packed would be an understatement. Where Season 1 took its time doling out character development and information, we learn episodes-worth of information in 10-20 second exposition dumps in Year 2. The story jumps ahead to where a new American government has been established, and we get a snapshot of all the ways in which the country has changed (there are two Americas, and Texas is once again independent and a key political player all its own), as Jericho has been rebuilt under this new government’s guidance.
Those original teases of a wider conspiracy take the forefront in Season 2, as our small-town heroes are suddenly thrust into the center of a far bigger story with the future of civilization itself in the balance after just a couple of episodes. It’s clear the creators had an ambitious, clever plan for where this show could go years down the line, and Season 2 did tackle some interesting ideas about propaganda, revisionist history, and the role of military contractors. But trying to cram all of that story into seven hours of television only rushed and muddied the world-building that was laid so carefully in Year 1. The stakes grew so wide so quickly, you never had time to digest and process them. It felt more like fan fiction trying to wrap up all the loose ends than a proper Season 2 aimed at moving the narrative forward.
It was the small town drama that made Jericho work in Season 1. That’s what fans fell in love with, and fought so hard to save. But instead of simply finding a way to give fans a proper ending to that story, they zeroed in on answering the questions that most probably weren’t actually asking. We didn’t need the story of Texas’ role in this new world order, or the drama around a new continental congress. We wanted to see our heroes have agency in their own stories, not thrust into action in a bigger world the show hadn’t really been living in at all. At least not to that point.
Jericho is a true testament to being careful what you wish for. Fans rallied to save the series they knew and loved, but instead wound up with a rushed Frankenstein’s monster miniseries of the big ideas that would have driven the show over the next 3-4 years had it been renewed for full runs. You can’t fault the creators for wanting to tell their story; there was just simply too much story to try to tell, and too few episodes to tell it.
But that first season? If you’re bingeing, just stop there. It’s still a masterpiece.
Trent Moore is a recovering print journalist, and freelance editor and writer with bylines at lots of places. He likes to find the sweet spot where pop culture crosses over with everything else. Follow him at @trentlmoore on Twitter.
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