Geraldmcraney_jericho_240It seems unfair to call Wednesday (May 9) night’s Jericho episode the first season finale.

In its 22 episodes, Jericho went through five or 10 seasons worth of reinventions, convolutions and experimentations as the show’s producers waffled and wavered on what, exactly, the post-apocalyptic drama was going to be. Was it a Lost-style mythology show full of big questions and shocking conspiracies? Was it a sudsy soap opera full of love triangles and exposed infidelities? Down the stretch, the creative team went a different direction. The mysteries were swept under the rug. The love triangles were split apart. What we’ve been left with for the past month was a surprisingly interesting testosterone-driven survivalist tale, in which the residents of Jericho and the denizens of the neighboring New Bern finally came to blows over such decidedly non-sexy issues as wind turbines and the rights to the local salt mine.

Although I never fully embraced Jericho (the stupid midseason hiatus numbed my interest and then, like roughly a third of the show’s audience, American Idol made it hard for me to stay current), but I kind of liked the show’s resistance to the conventional. That doesn’t mean the writing ever became much smarter or that the supporting performances ever became less wooden.

It’s in the later vein that I must discuss the major event of the finale: If you have a cast in which Skeet Ulrich has to carry the show on his thespianic shoulders, you’re not supposed to kill off your most established and authoritative secondary player. Yes, Lennie James did great work all season  —  keeping Hawkins intriguing even as he became too much of a riddle to ever get solved  —  but much of the time I kept watching just for the scenes with Gerald McRaney. Enjoying a late-career resurrection of coolness, McRaney had very few big emotional scenes, but he was the only person in the entire cast capable of delivering even the most purple of dialogue and selling it.

Without McRaney, the cast instantly becomes immeasurably weaker. I also don’t understand why the narrative required the character’s demise. His death was vaguely heroic (he was shot in an early Jericho stand against the New Bern forces) and it was vaguely important for him to tell Ulrich’s Jake that he was proud of the man he’d become, but the character’s story hadn’t reached a dead-end yet. The only purpose it served was a cathartic release for Deadwood fans who knew that history prevented Al Swearengen from stringing Hearst up by his intestines at the end of last season.

Very much on CBS’ renewal bubble, Jericho ended its season with an episode that practically screams, "You want us back… Next season we have Daniel Benzali!" Little tidbits of information were parceled out, both about the state of world events (some version of the new capital is in Cheyenne, Wyoming and the new flag for some portion of the country features a blog of stars [21, so I hear] and vertical stripes) and about the characters (Stanley wants to propose to Mimi, Jake makes out with Emily). Plus, after vanishing along with her love triangle, Sprague Grayden’s (now only credited as a "special guest star") Heather popped up somewhere in Nebraska, where she was promptly abandoned by the military installation stationed there. Many, many of the key enigmas from the start of the season were never quite answered, but fans are supposed to respond to those gaps in knowledge the same way McRaney’s Johnston responded when he learned that Hawkins has had access to a satellite system all season — a slightly raised eyebrow and a nod.

Skeetulrich5_jericho_cbs_240 The finale ended with New Bern’s forces approaching Jericho from one side and the U.S. Army approaching from another. Jake was leading his gang of scrappy rebels into battle, but it’s hard to know what will happen next even if our heroes manage to carry the day. CBS execs may be curious to know what’s happening next, but if the first season has proven anything, it’s that the producers may not necessarily know themselves.

Given its ratings and CBS’ place of viewer security, the only reason that network would bring the show back would be as a sign of general good faith for a small number of passionate fans and as a tacit acknowledgement that a long hiatus and the American Idol juggernaut were the culprits in the second half viewership swoon, rather than the show’s quality (only partially true).

On the bright side, anxious Jericho fans, this was one of the few serial dramas to start the fall and actually make it through an entire season’s worth of episodes. Even if CBS puts Jericho on the cancelled list, you can always lord those 22 episodes over fans of Drive, Smith, Day Break, Kidnapped, Vanished, Runway, Six Degrees, The Nine and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

What’d you think of the Jericho finale? Will you be unhappy if CBS doesn’t bring it back?

Posted by:Daniel Fienberg