Monday, August 06, 2007

John From Cincy: Mitch Yost gets back in the game

Spoilers for the penultimate episode of "John From Cincinnati" coming up just as soon as I fire up my grill...

So we have one episode left, maybe for now, maybe ever, and while I'm engaged, I don't for a minute believe that all our questions will be answered next week, or even most of them. Milch has always been better with beginnings than endings, and "JFC" is such a messy, shaggy story that I can't picture him tidying things up in a single episode. Hell, Mitch Yost -- our main character when this story began, don't forget -- just came back after being MIA for a bunch of episodes while Bruce Greenwood was off shooting a movie, so I think anyone believing that Milch has a firm grasp of his master plan are just wishing for the best the same way Butchie and Kai are when they convince themselves that John could never hurt Shaun.

I'm actually less interested in the return of Mitch (the show improved quite a bit when he left and the focus had to move off of the Yost marriage) than I am with Erlemeyer the chemist, the latest addition to the show's gallery of familiar TV faces. (For you young'uns, he's played by Howard Hesseman, best known for playing 60's drug casualty Dr. Johnny Fever on "WKRP in Cincinnati," and only slightly less well known for being hipster substitute teacher Charlie Moore on "Head of the Class.") I'm told this isn't a coincidence. One of Milch's chief themes of the series is our tendency to make character judgments based on first impressions, and he wanted his cast populated with actors the audience would feel like they knew -- often, in the case of people like Luis Guzman and Willie Garson, playing the sorts of roles they usually play -- so he could then show us how much deeper people like Ramon and Dickstein and Bill were than we first assumed when we saw the actors in question. I don't know that it's working all the time -- Ramon is nearly as big a cipher to me now as he was at the start, last week's comic ranting notwithstanding -- but it's interesting, and it's not hard to connect the dots between Johnny Fever and Erlemeyer. (Also, from "in Cincinnati" to "from Cincinnati." Better Hesseman than Gary Sandy.)

Another of Milch's pet themes, both on "Deadwood" and here, is the growth of community. As some commenters and other bloggers have pointed out, the Yosts and their friends have for the most part been existing independently of the rest of Imperial Beach. But that world has already been expanding in the last few weeks with the addition of Jerri and Dwayne at the internet cafe, and in one of my favorite sequences from last night, we see Cissy recruit a bunch of surf kids and Vietnam Joe to join the hunt for Shaun, and they in turn recruit more kids and more Vietnam vets. John, whatever his main agenda is, clearly wants the Yosts and the Snug Harbor people to reach out to the world at large. Maybe Butchie and Kai are right: maybe John doesn't mean Shaun any harm, and this is all just a device to help the Yosts "engage," just as Mitch re-engaged Erlemeyer.

The fact that Zippy disappeared along with Shaun and John shouldn't be a surprise, as all three have been tied together ever since Shaun brought Zippy back to life and Zippy returned the favor. What sort of Holy Trinity is this: the surfer, the birdie and the holy frat boy?

I still feel like the writing on this series has been too haphazard. Even if Milch wants, like David Chase's, to move away from TV's familiar narrative conventions, but you have to provide your audience something else in place of the usual rewards, and Milch has only done that some of the time.

But the highs, I'll admit, are pretty damn high. I don't usually think of Milch as a visual writer, and yet some of the strongest moments of "John" have been entirely wordless: the image of Shaun's wetsuit hanging empty like a ghost or a hanged man; the casual insertion of Mister Rollins (the grey man who molested Barry) in the background of the bar scene; and the closing sequence of Butchie sitting in the water, waiting for a wave to come.

That's as apt a metaphor for the series as a whole as I can think of. There are brief moments of tremendous excitement and fury and magic, and then a lot of sitting around, waiting for the next wave to hit. Does the finale give us something great to ride, or does the water remain frustratingly calm?

What did everybody else think?

18 comments:

Elisa said...

However Milch decides to wrap it up for us next week, I will have enjoyed the ride immensely. There has been a lot of "sitting around waiting", but those moments have, in actuality, been filled with some priceless gems that are only discernable upon repeated viewing. This is the one show where I have felt EVERY bit of dialogue has had some meaning - whether or not it was immediately evident.

I will watch the finale with no expectations, other than to continue to be mesmerized by the mad genius Milch and his cast of exceedingly compelling characters.

Valerie said...

This first season has been a lot of set up. It reminds of Lost. Lost set up a lot of scenarios that were resolved in the seasons to come. Something similar is happening here.

Of course John wouldn't hurt Sean.

Thanks to the visual clue given to use when Howard Hesseman spied that large abandoned building arena in the distance, I think next week's show will be resolved there.

There's been plenty to suggest throughout the season that something really big is going to happen there.

I still don't believe that John is Jesus.

I don't know what's going to happen.

But I know that whatever and whereever it does happen, all our characters will be together in the final scene.

Has anyone counted? Are there enough characters to make up the Wisemen, the Apostles and the three Mary's?

I'm not 100% on my theology but I think we might have enough people to make up the entourage of Jesus.

maureenm said...

I absolutely agree, elisa. I, who tend to analyze everything, find that I am also mesmerized (I cannot think of a better word) by this show, and I haven't even bothered to consider exactly why. It touches me on a number of levels, but not primarily on the analytical. And I so agree with what you said about the pertinence of the dialogue. Maybe it's just that it's my kind of weirdness. Whatever it is, it moves me powerfully. Good work, Alan, as always. I am delighted to find that I read you just as regularly as I did when your were the King of Sopranoland.

Edward Copeland said...

That's the first thing I thought of when the promo promised "all will be revealed." It reminded me of when ABC promoted the 2nd season premiere of Twin Peaks as answerin who killed Laura, which it did by showing BOB doing it. It just didn't reveal what BOB was or who he was hiding within. It was good to see Howard Hessemann though.

RP said...

Hey Alan, just wondering if you watched the show on air last night and happened to see yourself quoted ("Enthralled") in HBO's promo immediately following the closing credits, preceding quotes from EW. I'm guess that it's obviously not the first time you've been quoted in an ad, but I wonder if it is a first in attribution to the blog (the promo quoted sepinwall.blogspot.com and not you by name) as opposed to the Star-Ledger.

Alan Sepinwall said...

RP, I mentioned the blurb a couple of posts below this one: Boys to men

RP said...

Oops, sorry, hadn't read down that far yet. :)

Spencer said...

Even as a "fan" of the show, I can't say that I'm dying to have it picked up for a second season. In fact, I'd almost rather it wasn't. As a one season exercise, the show has been interesting, unique, and if never entirely satisfying, worth a look as an alternative to traditional narrative television. Stretching the show out to more seasons implies we're satisfied with the result, which I doubt many totally are, or that we've developed an attachment to these characters and story, which is not something the show has been particularly good at. I don't expect next weeks finale to wrap anything up but I've enjoyed having something strange to look forward to in a slow summer. Beyond that, however, I think the show will lose me as well as much of its already small audience.

Valerie said...

Not that anyone responds to anything I write but I can't help expressing my opinion. This is a great forum.

Anyway, I also think that the gathering at the abandoned arena is going to resemble the surfer's calgary fantasy scene painted on the side of the surf shop.

And remember, John is not Jesus.

dez said...

Hey, Valerie, I do believe we all read everyone's posts, even if we don't comment on each one :-)

Better Hesseman than Gary Sandy

Guys with poufy hair need work, too!

If, as UBM posted on his blog, Milch writes rather haphazardly these days, I doubt we'll get much of a cohesive explanation for what's going on in the finale. OTOH, perhaps JFC isn't the kind of show that requires it. Given how much time and energy I've invested in the show, I'll watch the finale, but as for a second season? Probably not. There's only so much navel-gazing I can do with a show before I get too frustrated to care.

Dan Coyle said...

You know what this show needs?

Transformers.

Mase said...

With "John from Cincinnati" ending next week, will you be reviewing on the blog the second seasons of "The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman" and "The Business", which just started on IFC?

dez said...

Yes, please do "The Business," Alan!

Andre said...

The genius of Milch's work can really be narrowed down to one thing: his characters. Deadwood is not all that exciting of a series, the dialogue you can barely understand. But what keeps you coming back for more are the wonderful actors that portray dark, brooding, haunted lives of Milch's eccentric characters.

JFC is more of the same. JFC is intensely imaginative, laugh-out-loud funny, and overwhelmingly intriguing. He masters the ability to draw a viewer in with curiosity. And that curiosity stems primarily from the wonderful display of characters and his casting ability.

I find it extremely disappointing that a show needs to run 5 years for its actors to be recognized. I believe a handful of these actors are putting in amazing performances. Maybe in part because of what you have already identified that these actors play roles they are familiar with. I will give them a bi more credit, as I believe any of the following are award worthy (beginning with the best): Bill Jacks/Ed Oneill, Butchie Yost/ Brian Van Holt, Palaka/ Paul Ben Victor, Steady Fready Lopez/Dayton Callie.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Sorry, guys, but I find "The Business" to be pretty heinous. Haven't really watched Jackie Woodman.

dez said...

^Why "heinous"? And did you watch the show that spawned it, "The Festival"? Just curious.

Anonymous said...

Paula Malcomson sounded so much like Trixie in last night's episode that it made me wonder if Milch can write in any other style for her.

Dark Tyler said...

This is in regards to last week's episode, but I think it's very interesting nontheless. Check out how the interrogation scene is probably a reference to a fantastic Caravaggio painting. Sorry if anyone's mentioned it already.

Fantastic episode this week, especially the scene with Barry, Dr. Smith and Ramon. I loved how Ramon kept referencing to John's sermon without even realizing it. Again: They don't remember it, but they will never forget about it. I love how these characters are at an almost Nirvana-like state without knowing exactly why. They just follow their instinct, exactly the way Butchie believes that John will help him in the end, the way he believes that a wave is on its way.

Great stuff! I don't think it's random at all.