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What's next on ''Jericho''

What’s next on ”Jericho” — The postapocalyptic CBS drama is back from hiatus

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When Jericho bowed in September, the story of a Kansas town in the wake of a nuclear holocaust appeared to have the makings of a modest hit. A nice complement to CBS’ plethora of procedurals, the Skeet Ulrich drama was poised to be that network’s answer to The X-Files or Lost — a juicy mythology that’d spawn conspiracy theories and fansites and bring young viewers to the network. That is, until other newcomers like Heroes and Ugly Betty blew up and nabbed far better ratings — Jericho is averaging an okay 10.8 million viewers — and bigger buzz. Then came CBS’ potentially apocalyptic decision to give the series a three-month stay in the network’s bomb shelter.

As Jericho reemerges this week — new episodes start Wed., Feb. 21, at 8 p.m. — we’ll soon know if that move has ended up being…well, a bomb. Like the townsfolk of Jericho, Kan., the cast is trying to remain optimistic. ”I watch Prison Break and it too had a big long break,” says Ashley Scott (who plays Emily) cheerfully. ”But I was excited about watching it again.”

One thing that CBS is not excited about is facing Fox’s own nuclear device, American Idol, which will air against Jericho for three weeks. (Even when Idol moves back to its regularly scheduled 9 p.m. slot on March 14, Jericho still has to face the surging Bones.) ”NCIS does fine opposite Idol. It doesn’t beat it, it just deflects it,” says David Brownfield, CBS’ senior VP of current programming. ”If we do three-fourths of what NCIS does, then we’ll be pleased.”

CBS has tried to improve the show’s chances of survival by launching a huge Internet campaign (sneak peeks at upcoming scenes have been ”leaked” on CBS.com, where viewers can also see the first 11 episodes). And the drama’s first new post-hiatus installment is a pre-bombing flashback that starts to lift away the shroud of mystery that envelops the tiny burg: Did newcomer Robert Hawkins (Lennie James) have anything to do with the bomb? Is China the enemy? What exactly was prodigal son Jake Green (Ulrich) doing over in Iraq? Here’s everything you need to know about the future of Jericho.

To recap: America’s at war…or not.
Up until D-day, the only mystery surrounding Jericho (pop. 3,000) was the sudden return of its native son Jake after a five-year absence. When he arrived to collect on a family inheritance, Jake’s unspoken motives were met with immediate skepticism from his dad, Johnston (Gerald McRaney), who’s also the mayor, and his brother, Eric (Kenneth Mitchell). After an ominous mushroom cloud appeared on the horizon, Jake suddenly became something of a one-man search-and-rescue team. ”He’s certainly of the ilk that he takes action quickly without much forethought,” explains Ulrich. ”It’s a good thing as well as a flaw.”

At least his random acts of heroism have offset the fear that has engulfed the town. Beyond scattered reports of devastation in cities like Washington, D.C., Denver, San Diego, and nearby Lawrence, the residents still don’t know who dropped the nuclear bombs or how many Americans were killed. The food and medicine situation remains dire, and there’s virtually no law and order. ”The first 11 episodes were about this big black curtain that’s dropped around these people in the middle of nowhere,” says producer and co-creator Jonathan Steinberg of his first series. ”The second 11 is about the curtain rising very slowly, so the folks of Jericho can see what’s going on out there and how it affects them.”

The town won’t stay isolated forever.
Others will begin migrating to Jericho with more definitive news of what’s happening elsewhere. ”We’ll learn a lot about where China is coming from,” says Steinberg. This will come as a welcome relief to both viewers and townsfolk who have tried to make sense of those air-dropped supplies that came with curious messages like ”China is your friend.” One person who’s definitely not a pal — Goetz (D.B. Sweeney) and his security team. Former employees of the Nebraska governor, he and his band of baddies have gone AWOL and are roaming Kansas terrorizing residents. Next stop: Jericho.

Speaking of enemies…
Newly elected mayor Gray Anderson (Michael Gaston) — who stole the election from Jake’s dad — tries to act like the town’s valiant protector, but may end up going too far. ”He’s very much a guy who’s gonna shoot first, ask questions later,” says Steinberg. ”He earnestly wants to protect the town from dangers down the road, but he’s a little overzealous.”

Anderson is a pussycat compared with the puzzling Robert Hawkins, a married father of two who entered the town hours before the bomb blast. The series’ flashback episode details what Hawkins knew about the nuclear holocaust, why he rushed his family to Jericho, and how come he buried that steel drum in the basement. The appearance of a woman from Hawkins’ past in Washington, D.C., may also help explain whether the mystery man perpetrated or attempted to stop the attacks. ”I might be bad, but then again I might not be!” teases James. ”Ultimately, it’s about what he’ll do next, regardless of whether he’s good or bad.”

Postapocalyptic relationships can really blow.
Jake was in the process of rekindling his childhood romance with Emily when Roger (Christopher Wiehl), Emily’s fiancé who was presumed dead, reappeared in Jericho with a contingent of homeless people at the end of the November cliff-hanger. ”Roger comes back a changed person,” says Scott, and she’s not just talking about all that facial scruff. ”He’s not selfish. He led these people for miles through horrible times, like a guiding light. There’s something about that that Emily starts to love.” But Jake won’t give up so easy. ”There’s a history between two people,” says Ulrich. ”I think it’s true love.”

In other love-triangle news, Jake’s mother Gail (Pamela Reed) remains furious that her spineless son Eric has abandoned his pregnant wife April (Darby Stanchfield) so he can marry his barkeep lover Mary (Clare Carey). ”His mom will make his life absolutely miserable,” says Steinberg. ”She does not approve and isn’t shy about it.” In fact, look for the disaster to bring out both sides in people as the town comes to grips with life in a post-nuclear world. ”Normality will slowly seep back into town, but it’s never going to be completely normal,” says Steinberg. ”This show isn’t just about a terrible thing that happened, it’s also about how people come together in the face of that terrible thing. It brings out fear and panic in people, but also brings out their best.” The people — and creators — of Jericho now must hope that their best is good enough.