Tom Shales, Style Columnist
Page 2 of 2   <      

'Kidnapped' Holds Viewers for Ransom

Dana Delany and Timothy Hutton in
Dana Delany and Timothy Hutton in "Kidnapped": Not your Ordinary People. (By Mitchell Haaseth -- Nbc)

At least that's an errant thought inspired by "Jericho," the new season's gloomiest and doomiest drama.

In the series premiere tonight on CBS, America suffers the apocalyptic horror of a nuclear attack. And that's just for starters.

Where will the show's writers go from there? From the obliteration of Denver and other cities apparently vaporized but not shown? That's a good question for "Jericho's" executive producer, Jon Turteltaub, who reassured a reporter for Entertainment Weekly: "The show is not all doom and gloom where everybody gets boils under their skin and dies." Well, thank heaven. Nobody likes a nuclear holocaust without a little fun in it.

The title refers to a relatively small town in Kansas, one so quaintly pretty and serene that it looks like an ad for Hallmark. In the pilot, a young and sullen prodigal son returns to Jericho just in time to see the big awful mushroom clouds forming in the distant sky. Eventually, the townsfolk realize that Denver has disappeared, and all hell begins to break loose.

Well, not quite all hell. A mob overruns a gas station, basically. One assumes the rest of hell is being saved for serialized chapters to come.

CBS, meanwhile, must have its own Chicken Little on staff, perhaps as a consultant, running around the Television City parking lot in Los Angeles and shouting "You've got to get 'Lost'! You've got to get 'Lost!' " Meaning not "Get out of town before somebody drops a house on you," but rather "Develop a show like 'Lost,' ABC's big, mysterious hit about people marooned an island after their plane crashes."

The people in "Jericho" are marooned in -- what else? -- Jericho after a whole city crashes.

And it appears the same sorts of plot threads will be unraveled, the same kinds of murky back-stories told, and similar conflicts evolve among the various characters as Jericho faces dire prospects just over the horizon.

Skeet Ulrich plays the prodigal figure, a guy named Nick who left town under a cloud of his own -- not a nuclear cloud, of course -- and has returned after four years just in time to perform an emergency tracheotomy on a little girl trapped in a school bus. There's another bus to worry about: one formerly filled with prison inmates, all now running loose because their bus tumbled into a ravine.

Ulrich is so muttery and mopey in the lead role that the show seems gloomy even during the few minutes before the mushroom clouds form. But more damaging to "Jericho" is the fact that it's really a Cold War drama airing years after the Cold War ended. Perhaps it will evolve that al-Qaeda or the Iranians or North Koreans or -- the possibilities are too numerous -- get hold of nuclear weapons and go berserk, making the show seem more contemporary, but obviously we'll have to "tune in next week," or for weeks after that, to find out what's going on.

The drama seems dated in other ways -- among them, tiny details like a strange scarcity of cellphones in town. This is a writer's convenience; if people in Jericho, like everywhere else, had cellphones, then someone could have called the cops to tell them about the imperiled school bus. Instead, footage is eaten up by townsfolk traipsing around in search of the vehicle.

It might sound callous to say that "Jericho" has managed to make nuclear war look boring, but there you have it. Or don't have it, should you choose the seemingly sane course of steering clear.

As for comic relief, there is some, but it might be unintentional -- as when Gerald McRaney, as the town's nutball of a mayor, tries to calm the population by saying, "One explosion does not make an attack," even with the nuclear clouds clearly visible in the distance. That's not looking on the bright side. That's being a blithering idiot.

"Jericho" could use considerably less blither and considerably more believability.

Kidnapped (one hour) debuts tonight at 10 on Channel 4; Jericho (one hour) debuts tonight at 8 on Channel 9.

<       2

© 2006 The Washington Post Company