Is the world coming to an end?
Exactly the question for a new series that takes its existential exigencies seriously. And that series may — or may not be — the presumptive first strike the network is making in its stake for originality as "Jericho" — and all its walls come tumbling down due to a nuclear blast detonated on the new Wednesday-night show.
And the series is a blast-off of hope for Jon Steinberg, its co-creator, and Dan Shotz, producer, proof positive that new paths can come from an Old York Road.
Longtime friends — "Jon and I lived three houses down from each other" — these are grade-A A.J. gems on similar Jewish journeys, whose Melrose Park ambitions have branched out into the Hollywood hills.
It's not like they always drank from the same kiddush-cup punch at Shabbat services; Steinberg's stein flows with lawyerly liquid. A Penn Law School grad, he "practiced briefly in Philadelphia before moving to Los Angeles to write."
Shotz's shot glass has always been overflowing with film fluency. A film major at Wesleyan U., he U-hauled it out to L.A. after graduation, where he joined up with director Jon Turteltaub, a fellow Wesleyan Cardinal, graduating from his assistant to feature/TV producer and developer alongside the talented titan.
First among equals, both Steinberg and Shotz agree on this: " 'Jericho' is my first show."
Not bad for two erstwhile totskeles who, as Shotz recalls, "rode tricycles together."
From such tricycles come such big wheels: "Jon and I were friendly when we were younger, and reconnected out here about five years ago."
From a shared interest in canned mushroom soup to mushroom clouds: "It all started when Jon came to me and said he had this interesting concept," which, Steinberg chimes in, he had about a year-and-a-half ago.
That idea: The nuclear winter of a world's discontent. "Jericho" is a small Kansas town cut off from the rest of the country when a distant blast explodes their world, and redefines nuclear family for one and all.
Dorothy, you're not in Kansas anymore; you're alone in a brave if barren new world. "We chose Kansas to provide as American a [region] as possible," says Dan of the Shotz heard round the world which first was aired to his longtime friend and creative partner.
The day the earth stood still? Holy "Klaatu barada nikto!" — more it's shattered in shards.
As the characters of Jericho come together, they soon understand that getting out of Dodge may not mean as much as having dodged a very real bullet. Bombs bursting in air: Is "Jericho" a national anthem to man's inhumanity to man or his ability to reconfigure relationships when need be?
Brrr — it's cold out there: "We both grew up in the early '80s, when the Cold War meant something different before Sept. 11," allows Steinberg.
The battle for the soul of "Jericho" is not lost on fans of another mysterious series. "We're big friends of 'Lost,' " says Shotz.
But this is no planet of the aping; the two are organically original as is the series. But is such a set-up of doomsday doomed to fail?
Look up — up in the sky, it's … upbeat?
"With Jon Turteltaub," says Shotz admiringly of his mentor and the series exec producer, along with Josh Schaer and Stephen Chbosky, "he'll make sure that there's an element of hope about it," an important element for the show's survival.
"There was the fear that it would be too dark," says Shotz. "We are not playing it that way."
Two Guys From Cheltenham
It's a small world after all for the two friends from Melrose Park, but then it's a small town that makes "Jericho" such a jolt of thermonuclear theatrics.
"These people have known each other their whole lives; now they're cut off, faced with isolation," says Shotz.
Alone again, unnaturally? Not all — or everyone — is as it seems on screen. There is the prodigal son returning at the clouded sunset with different stories for different people about where he's spent the past five years.
Each of the key characters is transformed; the mystery is an admirable blend of "The Admirable Crichton" and a creepy psychological thriller of catastrophic proportions.
Not that all is somber and serious. After all, drop two Jewish guys into the middle of "Jericho," and you've got to come up with some comic gems. In the midst of all these gentiles in the less-than-gentle land that is Jericho, surely, someone must know how to make a kugel?
"Mimi — Mimi's Jewish," opines Shotz of "the IRS auditor in town" when the tragedy occurs.
And speaking of tragedies, "she's upset when she finds there are no bagels in 'Jericho.' "
Just some Jewish joshin,' says Shotz.
But if bagels don't bounce Mimi's hopes, what does? Has the God-forsaken act of nuclear insanity forsaken the role of God?
"This is very much a post-Sept. 11 show," says Steinberg. "But it's not about the end of the world."
No, in TV land, that only happens with bad ratings in a universe ruled by lord Nielsen. But this show looks explosively good in its serious serialized format.
And the congregants back home would be happy to hear that the Steinberg/Shotz mitzvah mobile has made a successful voyage west. "There is a spiritual aspect to the series," says Steinberg, with characters asking, "How do I continue to be a good person" even as evil lurks in the nuclear shadow?
What happens in Jericho stays in Jericho? The implications are of the bizarre breaking through borders.
But film is no break with familiar turf. When life was a walk in the Park, and Melrose Avenue was never to be mistaken as a stand-in for "Melrose Place," movie-making was no alien world for Shotz. His father "produced a movie when I was 12 — 'Under the Sun,' with Vanessa Williams."
Indeed, he doesn't have to schvitz alone in the Hollywood sun: "Both my parents," says Dan of Barbara and Steven Shotz, "are so supportive."
Steinberg supports that statement, too, when it comes to his own folks, Chuck and Barbara Steinberg.
And when they can, the two guys love to sandwich in quality time back home. After all, Lee's Hoagies gets above-the-title credit as one of the things Shotz pines for.
But they both admit it's family they miss most: "Our families are everything to us," say the two.
Not that they're alone as babes in the woods away from the Park. "Both of us got married two months apart," says Shotz, 29, of his Emily and Steinberg, 31, of his Rebecca.
"We're worried that they'll become CBS widows," joshes Shotz of the "boys" busy new series schedule.
Nobody's dying to predict how the series will do; ultimately, viewers are the ones with their fingers on the button.
But the show's germane in an environment where people haven't learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.
Strange love that societies can have for each other, which may make "Jericho" relevant as Da Bomb — in the good sense — of the season.
"It's terrifying," says Steinberg of what the series deals with, close encounters of the unkind.
Too close for comfort? It all, he says hopefully, doesn't hit home: "Every day I come to work with the hope that it remains fictional."