Monday, June 11, 2007

John From Cincinnati: End is near, beginning is here

Countdown to the "Sopranos" finale has eaten virtually all my time and mental energy this week, so in lieu of a new "John From Cincinnati" post, I'm going to paste in the relevant portions of Friday's Star-Ledger column, then leave things open for you guys to discuss what is a very strange, sometimes fascinating, sometimes frustrating show.

"John" carries a double burden. Not only is it following the finale of one of the most revered shows in TV history (will anyone be in the mood for a new drama right after "Sopranos" ends?), but it's been accused, however unfairly, as being responsible for killing another all-time great.

"John from Cincinnati," you see, is The Show That Killed "Deadwood," since HBO claimed producer Milch was so excited to do his new show that he didn't have time for the old one. The truth is closer to "John" being a convenient alibi for the cancellation of the expensive, modestly- rated "Deadwood," but when the legend becomes fact, we print the legend.

"John" would have to be at least the equal of "Deadwood," if not better, to overcome its early reputation, and it's not. It's an odd little show, often more David Lynch than David Milch, and after three episodes I'm still not sure I understand it all.

The short version (relatively): in the town of Imperial Beach, Calif., lives the Yost family, a legendary surfing clan. Mitch Yost (Bruce Greenwood) was a star in the '70s who retired after a knee injury, and now finds himself floating a few inches off the ground at random intervals. Son Butchie (Brian Van Holt) revolutionized the sport -- or so we're told, since the few glimpses we get of him on a board don't make him look substantially different or better than anyone else -- be fore becoming a heroin junkie. That left the care of Butchie's son Shaun (Greyson Fletcher) to Mitch and wife Cissy (Rebecca DeMornay).

Into the middle of the Yosts and their extended circle of friends and family -- which includes retired cop Bill (Ed O'Neill), motel manager Ramon (Luis Guzman), attorney Meyer Dickstein (Willie Garson) and shady surfing promoter Linc (Luke Perry) -- enters the title character (Austin Nichols), a childlike stranger with magic pockets and other unusual abilities who's either supposed to be Jesus Christ or an alien, I'm not sure which. There's also a resurrecting parakeet that has the power to heal others. It's that kind of show.

In the early going, the hints about John's identity lead more to the Christ theory: the series' initials; John introducing himself by saying, "The end is near"; his briefly granting a friend psychic powers by instructing her to "see God," plus the fact that surfing and levitation are two different ways to walk on water. But the character as written seems more like Jeff Bridges in "Starman," a quiet innocent learning how to be human by adopting the speech patterns of those around him. (Almost everything he says is quoting another character.)

As with "Deadwood," the focus is on a community at the edge of civilization (Imperial Beach is the at the extreme southwest corner of the continental U.S.), filled with people incapable of functioning anyplace else. The dialogue is in Milch's familiar curlicue blend of the sacred and the profane -- in one of the more printable moments, Bill exclaims, "I tell you, I don't know anymore if I'm on foot or horseback, or if a bird's alive or dead." -- and many of the actors are members of Milch's traveling repertory company. (O'Neill was the star of the short-lived CBS cop show "Big Apple," Guzman and Garson both had recurring roles on "NYPD Blue," and "Deadwood" regulars Jim Beaver, Dayton Callie and Garret Dillahunt all pop up in small roles.)

But where "Deadwood" had a clear sense of purpose and several indelible characters (notably Ian McShane's ruthless saloon keeper Al Swearengen) right from the jump, "John" takes a laid- back approach to its early episodes, wandering from character to character without bothering to explain what they're about or why you should care. Guzman's and Garson's characters start out as a kind of Greek chorus, then get sucked into what feels like an entirely separate story involving a gay lottery winner and a haunted motel room. (Again, it's that kind of show.)

Six months ago, HBO screened a "John" trailer for critics. Afterwards, a few of us gathered around Milch, and he asked us what we thought of it.

"I'm not sure I understood it," said one.

"That's okay," he assured her. "You're not supposed to."

Milch is a genius, but with genius comes eccentricity, and "John" feels like far too eccentric a show to launch on the heels of the "Sopranos" farewell.

What did everybody else think?

33 comments:

Anonymous said...

I DVRed it but didn't watch it. I was just too miffed at David Chase to start a new series last night. I just wasn't in the mood to jerked around by another TV auteur.

Louis said...

I'm okay with a show that has one or two quirky characters, but when they're all Quirky-with-a-capital-Q, that's a problem.

Abbie said...

Yeah, I had it on but wasn't really watching it. I think I'll try it again this week to see if it was just a post-Sopranos reaction, or if it really wasn't worth the watch. It was kinda seeming intentionally pointless.

Katherine Coble said...

I think since I'm not one of the young writerly sycophants who will happily spend 12 hours a day watching Milch dictate his scripts into a VR program, I'm not as enthralled with The Legend Of Milch and therefore not as in love with this mess as I'm supposed to be.

TinaMarie said...

No thanks John from Cincinnati. I was bored most of the hour, but I stuck with it hoping it would improve. Nope. Ed O'Neil was great though, but he's not enough to keep me watching.

So disappointing. Oh well, at least I still have Big Love.

Gish said...

I guess I just drink the Milch Kool Aid. I loved every minute of it, and I am not a writer. I'm not sure this show isn't being unfairly held up to Deadwood, as everyone wants to point out that it isn't about anything. To me it has just as much going on as an OC type soap, with better writing and quirkier characters.

Joe F said...

Alas, I'm a complete Deadwood fanatic and by principle won't be watching it. And if Milch doesn't make those two tele-movies for Deadwood I think I might explode.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Alas, I'm a complete Deadwood fanatic and by principle won't be watching it.

This assumes that Deadwood died so John could live, which is simply not the case, no matter what Chris Albrecht said. John was simply HBO's alibi for canceling one of their most acclaimed but expensive shows.

JD said...

Haven't watched it yet. I will probably get sucked in at some point, but for the time being I will resist. Milch has peeved me a few too many times.

Homertojeebus said...

Alan,
your head must be spinning with this finale. Any TV appearances lined up?
I didn't watch "John" yet. HBO did this show no favors premiering it after that finale. I doubt anybody was in the mood. I bet the ratings fell off of a cliff at 10:05.
They should've made the "Sopranos" finale a crossover episode with "John". Maybe show the Russian ridin' the pipe.

Joe F said...

This assumes that Deadwood died so John could live, which is simply not the case, no matter what Chris Albrecht said. John was simply HBO's alibi for canceling one of their most acclaimed but expensive shows.

My anguish is too great to accept any scenario than the one I created in my head; I prefer just to project anger.

Really, though, I am somewhat intrigued by John from Cincinnati. I just hope it goes somewhere other than "John is wierd".

BigAssBelle said...

ugh. i almost quit half way through, then stuck it out. i'll try again, maybe a third time. but this may go the way of Carnivale for me. that was one i never got into. a good thing, i guess, since i allow myself 3 hours of tv a week. don't want to waste one with Big Love and Top Chef coming this week.

Homertojeebus said...

BigAssBelle said...
** don't want to waste one with Big Love and Top Chef coming this week. "

Belle,
did you catch the Top Chef all-star special last week? They intro'd the season 3 contestants, and Ilan showed why Marcel should have won.

Ted said...

I was entertained enough to come back next week. But, I think John has a good chance of becoming something really stupid.

Undercover Asian Man said...

What is it with writers / show-runners who get such inflated egos that they think anything they do is high art and can't be questioned by 'mortal standards'? Aaron Sorkin, David Milch, and even David Chase to a large degree lose all perspective about their duties as storytellers and instead make shows that are really focused on themselves and their own self-importance. It really is an epidemic these days, I expect Shonda Rhimes and Marc Cherry to follow suit shortly (many would argue that it has already begun).

JFC is so self-indulgent, it probably causes Milch to gain weight. It is a show that seemingly has no purpose other than to build and solidify a cult around Milch, forcing viewers to answer the "are you with me or not?" question with no hope for reward for those who choose either answer. It just seemed more important to Milch to determine how large a cult he controls than any semblance of storytelling desire.

Writers seem to be backwards people longing for acceptance, and using writing as an expression of that outcast status. As soon as their writing allows them to achieve that acceptance, they become the overbearing blowhards they used to mock and hate, losing all perspective from the pain that allowed them to produce meaningful and influential art.

Another brilliant writer lost to his own ego - JFC is the latest testament to lost storytelling in favor of self-fawning stroke-fest.

Filipe said...

This assumes that Deadwood died so John could live, which is simply not the case, no matter what Chris Albrecht said. John was simply HBO's alibi for canceling one of their most acclaimed but expensive shows.

Also, one should point to all Deadwood fans that are claiming for John from Cincinatti blood that if this show bombs as hard as they want those two Deadwood movies are very much dead.

Anonymous said...

I was not immediately engaged. Maybe I will stick around but probably not. This will be known as the minor show that killed Deadwood, the best show on TV. With The Sopranos Rome and Deadwood gone, I'm off to enjoy Dexter and Weeds on Showtime.

I feel betrayed by Milch and HBO. There was more to tell in Deadwood and I pay to see it. Give us a proper ending to story that is well loved. Instead they give a us a surfer dude story.

cg said...

Unwatchable.

Suzanne said...

I like magical realism, and I was interested in some of the thematics of this show so far, although it's definitely of the Judeo-Christian sort. I thought Sean is a boy Jesus - he takes after the profession of his father Butchie (ala Joseph), but in some ways his grandpa (Surf God) is his real dad. The parrot being resurrected reminds me of the Gnostic stories of young Jesus I've heard. John from Cincinnati represents a sort of John the Baptist. All the focus on water makes sense in that context, as well. Anyway, that's just a preliminary analysis, I will be interested in watching more. I'm 28...maybe this show appeals to a younger generation than the Sopranos and Deadwood? There's already a wiki and some guerilla-style marketing. HBO could have cha-ching if they do it right.

Dennis Wilson said...

I loved that the guy who drove "J.C." to the motel was the same actor who played Jesus Christ (as a truck driver, no less) in Sipowicz's dream reunion with his murdered son in the "Taillight's Last Gleaming" episode of Milch's NYPD Blue (Jim Beaver.)

By the way, what's Bill Clark doing in the opening credits as a consulting producer on this show? Isn't this a little far afield of his New York police detective background? Just curious, of course.

ooda said...

It could be that I wasn't trying to be too deep with it, but I f--king loved it. The only time when I didn't really like it was with that guy from Little Miss Sunshine, but he redeemed it with the teddy scene.

I was laughing through the whole thing, and it's hard not to love John. I don't know why, but I didn't really find it hard to follow. I also loved how John's pockets were empty, but whenever someone needs something, it magically shows up.

As it is, it's ranking as one of my favourite shows of the year, and I can't wait for next week. Deadwood I really like, but just based on the pilot for JFC, I have to pledge my allegiance to the latter.

Suzanne: You may have a point there. I'm 22, so that could be helping.

Suzanne said...

I just found http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monad that mentions this show and links to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monism "the metaphysical and theological view that all is one, that there are no fundamental divisions, and a unified set of laws underlie nature" which sounds a lot like surfer philosophy to me. Some interesting corollaries to my hunch about Gnosticism are found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infancy_Gospel_of_Thomas especially the part about bringing the clay birds to life and the "trickster nature of the god-child".

Anonymous said...

If the academy recognized belly acting, Luis Guzman would win for lifetime achievement.

mrsbbradley said...

I just find this show unbearable. For some reason the kid's seamingly flatironed hair do just bugged the crud out of me.

And John echolalia-type vocalizations came off more sad autistic than profit. I did not find it cute or endearing. I was almost to the point of insulted.

I was not a fan of Deadwood, but I had high hopes for a show that looked quirky and strange.

I won't be tuning in again.

ooda said...

Anonymous: Hahahaha, yeah, I loved it when Sanford (that will do until I get a strong enough bond with the supporting cast to actually remember their names) was helping him load the pickup, and you could just see that sad excuse for a t-shirt half-way up Luis' belly.

TuckPendleton said...

I think Milch has built up enough good will to get me for at least the first six eps or so. I'm intrigued to see where it will go.

It's frustrating to me that people (esp. those who loved Deadwood) would pull the cord on JFC so soon. So many people want their artists to be great, but only in the way they want them to me. These people would probably be happy if Milch did Deadwood until the end of time.

I just think you have to give people who have entertained you in the past the benefit of the doubt, at least initially. How can anyone judge anything from one episode? Esp. from someone so talented? Could it end up being a giant self-indulgent wank-fest? Sure. Could is also be brilliant? Less likely, but possibly.

Artists have to spread their wings. And if JFC only ends up being the bridge that takes him between two great series, then so be it. But you can't just write a show off after one ep, given Milch's background.

(I also think HBO didn't do Milch any favors by putting the premiere of a difficult, patience-requiring show right after an extremely patience-testing ending on the Sopranos. I think people were just too agitated.)

And finally...Rebecca DeMornay? Yeeeee-ow. We should all be so luck to age that well...

Abbie said...

I gave it a second chance last night and it was much better without the Sopranos finale hanging over my head. I explained it to my wife, however, and she said it sounded too much like Lost, what with the name-dropping and the magical realism.

I haven't seen any Deadwood, so I can't comment on that.

I'll watch several episodes and see. It's not like I'm watching much else but HBO this summer.

Ty Keenan said...

I just got around to watching it and really kinda loved it. I'm a little surprised that people think it's substantially weirder than Deadwood. Outside of the John stuff, I didn't think it was really any more bizarre; I mean, the Cunningham stuff was weird, but they at least tried to give it some backstory--more than Mr. W ever got during Deadwood S2, at least. And as odd as all the John stuff was, I thought most of the reactions to him were legitimate. Butchie was more accepting than a regular person would be, but he clearly needs money and in some way appreciates being worshipped, even if he projected that onto John.

I think what might be getting at everyone is that this one takes place in something approaching the present day, whereas with Deadwood it was possible to chalk a lot of it up to the time period, even if it wasn't indicative of the way life was really lived in those times.

That said, this show has a long way to go before it matches Deadwood. I just wish more people weren't so inclined to dislike it ahead of time.

Sara Anne said...

I only watched it last night and my immediate reaction was: this is odd. It was slow, but hopefully the pace will pick up now that we've been introduced to the characters.

I got really distraced by the guy who bought the hotel, knowing I've seen him before and after lookin ghim up, I now know he was one of David's friends on Six Feet Under.

I hope my relationship with this show isn't like with Carnivale where I wacthed it every week hoping I'd figure out what the hell was going on.

Dark Tyler said...

What numbers did "Deadwood" usually do? "John" held 3.5 million viewers. It's HBO so I'm not gonna be obsessing over viewership for the time being, I'm just curious if this is a decent number or a disaster.

ooda said...

I think Deadwood tended to get around the 2.5 million mark, so you could view 3.5 mill as being a decent number, or on the flip side, kinda low for a series premiere. Though it looks like some people may return to JFC in the coming weeks, so it might not be that bad a fall.

From memory, I think Entourage gets around 3 million viewers.

Dark Tyler said...

Cool. It looks like the kind of show that grows on you, so it'd be great if it became a hit. Even a modest one.

Fletch said...

John From Cincinnati is such a great show. It's so random. But it somehow is all connected at the same time. It makes you think. I like shows like that. This coming from a true Deadwood fan. I'm not so angry at the fact of them cancelling that show, but if you think about it the whole storyline would have come to an end sometime, because it's a history based story. I would be disappointed if there wasn't a follow up movie or something. Sunday nights on HBO (Entourage and John), the only thing that I like about sundays, until football season.