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Ashley Scott in 'Jericho.' The quieter side of this drama-heavy show is successful.
Ashley Scott in "Jericho." The quieter side of this drama-heavy show is successful. (Cliff Lipson/CBS)
TELEVISION REVIEW

'Jericho' turns nuclear catastrophe into all-out assault

There's something beautiful about the mushroom cloud floating on the horizon in ``Jericho." It's like a colorized jellyfish lingering in the evening sky, small and harmless in the great distance of Kansas, unfolding with the slowness of a creature surrounded by water.

When this image first appears in CBS's ``Jericho," which premieres tonight at 8 on Channel 4, it promises enough drama to fuel at least one multiseason TV series. We know, as do the citizens of Jericho, that the mushroom cloud is a terrible beauty that will change their lives forever, and not for the better. Five years after 9/11 brought a homeland attack, the sight is haunting enough to grab our attention and hold it.

But the producers of ``Jericho," including director Jon Turteltaub of the hit movie ``National Treasure," are not content to rely solely on apocalypse for the show's fuel, and that's its undoing. ``Jericho" turns nuclear catastrophe into an excuse for a series of suspenseful ``24"-like set pieces, and the result is a ham-fisted concoction overcrowded with incident and rigged thrills. Tonight, brooding hero Jake (Skeet Ulrich) doesn't just save a bus of children amid the holocaust; he does so with a profusely bleeding injury, a little girl suffocating, escaped convicts on the loose, and, of course, the gas gauge on empty.

Even Jack Bauer might balk.

But while ``Jericho" borrows from the pace and rhythm of ``24," it has a more urgent case of ``Lost" envy. Indeed, CBS may hope that ``Lost"-ies will start their Wednesday nights on CBS before jumping to ABC at 9. Like the castaways, the people of Jericho are trapped together in mysterious circumstances. All they know is that phones and TVs are dead, birds are falling from the sky, and the world beyond Jericho appears to be silent. And so they wrangle among themselves for answers, and leaders rise to the top, including Mayor Green (Gerald McRaney), Jake's father, and a newcomer (Lennie James) who seems to know an awful lot about all things nuclear.

``Jericho" even gives us the time-warp hatches of ``Lost" in next week's episode, as Jake tries to rush the town s folk into bomb shelters that were built during the height of the Cold War.

With so many balls in the air, including Jake's family politics, his brother's extramarital affair, a prisoner hostage situation, looting, the mayor's physical and political problems, Jake's ex-girlfriend (Ashley Scott), and Jake's new flirtation (Sprague Grayden), ``Jericho" strains at the seams. And yet tonight's most haunting scene is a quiet moment with a boy listening to a phone message from his mother that ends abruptly with an explosion. As the boy listens over and over again in grief and disbelief, the scene recalls the last-minute phone calls of 9/11.

There's no racing against the clock at this point in ``Jericho," just psychological devastation. It has the potent mood of dawning realization that marked the 1959 adaptation of Nevil Shute's ``On the Beach."

If Turteltaub and company cut back on the action-adventure cheese and relaxed into the inherent intensity of the situation in `` Jericho, " they could develop something special. Now is an opportune time to revisit the apocalypse of the TV movie ``The Day After" and the theatrical release ``Testament," both from 1983, as global politics once again have us waiting for the end of the world. We know the walls need to shake in ``Jericho," but some honest human drama might be even more gripping.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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