Skeet Ulrich, <EM>Jericho</EM> Skeet Ulrich, Jericho

If you judge Skeet Ulrich on his career choices alone, you might think he doesn't learn from his mistakes. "My work on Miracles should have told me to steer clear of doing another show," says the star of the surprise hit Jericho (Wednesdays at 8 pm/ET, on CBS). "Doing one is so intense, it typically becomes a 70-hour week."

So what changed his mind after that short-lived show about the supernatural? "With the kids [twins Jakob and Naiia, from his recently ended marriage to actress Georgina Cates] starting kindergarten," Ulrich says, "I just don't want to be away on movie locations anymore."

It probably didn't hurt that Ulrich already knew a lot about small towns like Jericho, Kansas, where prodigal son Jake Green (Ulrich) and the other residents have to deal with the aftermath of a nearby nuclear strike that leaves them cut off from the rest of the world. The 36-year-old grew up in tiny Concord, North Carolina, and spent a lot of time around racetracks his stepfather, D.K. Ulrich, and uncle Ricky Rudd were both NASCAR drivers. "I kept up with it until my uncle retired at the end of last season," the actor says, "so I haven't seen an entire race this season, though I do know who's leading the points."

Much like NASCAR, Jericho requires viewers to keep up as it races forward. "I really loved the premise," Ulrich says. "Who do we become when someone takes everything away? Who decides what is law and order in a new world?"

While Jericho raises plenty of questions, he says, "I can't think of an episode that doesn't explain something." Adds executive producer Carol Barbee, "We can't get away with the same things Lost does. People are hooked on that show for good reasons, but they're also frustrated by it." This month, for instance, viewers started learning more about why Jake had left town, where he was and why there's a rift between him and his father, Mayor Johnston Green (Gerald McRaney).

Despite Jericho's heavy subject matter, Ulrich says, "There's actually a nice, loose atmosphere on the set. We're having a blast." (No pun intended.) But he won't be letting his kids watch it anytime soon.

"They're 5," he says of his twins. "When my daughter visited the set, she looked up at me and said, Daddy, what's radiation?' That was enough for me."

Whereas Jericho caught on with viewers, CBS' Smith did not. Read our analysis of why in the Oct. 23 issue of TV Guide, on sale now.

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