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 residents 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.
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.
"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 two, 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."
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."