By Amy Amatangelo
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 10, 2008
Carol Barbee will never look at TV viewers the same way again.
Last May, CBS canceled her freshman drama "Jericho." But after receiving more than 40,000 pounds of peanuts from devoted and outraged fans, the network reversed course, picking up the post-apocalyptic drama for a seven-episode second season.
"We had nothing to do with it," said Barbee, the show's executive producer. "The fans all did it themselves. I think it will probably be one of those things that will always be one of the highlights of my career."
In the first season, Jake (Skeet Ulrich) and his fellow citizens in the small Kansas burg of Jericho are forced to fight for survival in the face of nearby nuclear attacks. The action stays focused on the town and its surrounding areas; residents (and viewers) are unaware of what's happening in the outside world.
When "Jericho" debuted to respectable viewership numbers in September 2006, it was shaping up to be one of the few success stories of that season. CBS pulled it from the schedule in November so it could air future new episodes in consecutive weeks. But when the series returned in February 2007, ratings declined significantly; by May's season finale, the series had lost more than one-third of the audience who'd tuned in for the series premiere. The scheduling experiment had failed.
"A lot of people thought we had been canceled midseason," Barbee said. "It was done with the best of intentions, but you cannot just lose your presence on television."
Shaun Daily, who hosts a radio show on www.blogtalkradio.com, was a huge fan of the show. When word began to circulate that the series wasn't going to get a second season, he urged his listeners to ship nuts to CBS headquarters in Los Angeles and New York.
"I said, 'I don't know if it's going to work, but we've got to try,'" Daily said.
Why peanuts? In the first season finale Jake retorted, "Nuts," when the leader of the neighboring town of New Bern demanded surrender. (That's the same retort U.S. Army Gen. Anthony McAuliffe made to the Germans at the Battle of Bastogne in World War II.)
"Skeet found it very difficult to deliver that line," Barbee said. "He was like, 'I just feel so silly,' and then he did it, and he did it well. But none of us thought that somebody would think about it as peanuts. It's like this perfect storm. It's one word. It's kind of funny."
Lennie James, a British actor who made his U.S. television debut as the mysterious Robert Hawkins, had been warned that many American shows don't make it to a second season.
"What I had been led to believe was that when a show is canceled, it's canceled," he said. "There was no coming back. I believed we had no power to do anything about it."
But as the weeks progressed and the nuts campaign reached a fever pitch, Barbee said the mother in her started to get concerned for the fans.
"I saw how they were working so hard," Barbee said, "and I thought, 'Oh, no, they're going to get crushed. It's not going to happen. It never happens.'"
Although he knew the series had loyal fans, James was unaware of the impact "Jericho" was having on people.
"The campaign was a staggering piece of ingenuity, so incredibly well organized, so dignified and considerate," James said.
Barbee said her "north star" in plotting the second season with the show's other writers was to pay the fans back.
"Show them what they want to see. Tell them this amazing story," she said. "We promised this to the fans, and we're not going to let them down because, you know what, what [is CBS] going to do -- cancel us?"
A shortened season also forced more streamlined stories.
"There's not time to tread water," Barbee said. "Every episode has huge plot turns, huge character reveals. The arc of this season is Jake and Hawkins going on a mission together to save democracy. . . . This season is all, 'What do we stand for? What do we believe in?' It's about personal responsibility, which I think will really resonate during the season of elections."
James calls Season 2, which features Esai Morales in a recurring role, "a roller-coaster ride."
"The premise of the show is a great 'what if' story," James said. "Last season we were trying to save a town. Now we're trying to save a nation."
And what about a third season? Daily said he's not planning to promote another peanuts campaign just yet.
"I try not to get too far ahead because I don't want to jinx myself," he said.
Whatever the future holds for "Jericho," Barbee said she will always view fans as a partner going forward.
"I will want to interface with them and want to listen to them," she said. "It's been a huge eye-opening experience and, I think for all of us, the great equalizer."
CBSGet Caught Up
Sci Fi Channel airs a four-episode marathon Monday starting at 7 p.m. You also can watch each episode of Season 1 for free at www.cbs.com.