Monday, July 30, 2007

John From Cincy: Get with the big and huge already

Spoilers for the latest episode of "John From Cincinnati" coming up just as soon as I organize my teddy bear collection...

Eight episodes into a ten-episode season (or, more likely, series, as I can't imagine HBO bringing this show back), I should be prepared by now for the digressions, the halting pace, the stories that come out of nowhere (and then quickly go back there) and all the other narrative oddities of Milch's latest work. Yet I keep expecting something more than (or different from) what the show is offering -- maybe because each episode offers a moment or three that suggests something grander, if not more coherent, than what we're generally getting.

Take Bill's interrogation of John. Milch has written a few thousand of them in his life. The episode's director, Jesse Bochco (son of Steven and one of the in-house directors in the final years of "NYPD Blue") has been behind the camera for a few dozen, at least. Yet somehow this felt completely new, and riveting. Of course, it featured elements you don't often see in an interrogation scene: a mentally-unstable cop who communicated telepathically with birds, a suspect who only mirrors what other people say, who maybe Jesus, and who can stab himself repeatedly in the gut and draw blood without injuring himself.

It's a hell of a scene. Bill's terrified of John and what he represents, John wants to help Bill but, as happens throughout the episode, he can't find the words to explain his meaning, and stabbing himself seems like the only way to drive home the point that he's not some kidnapper or child-molester or whatever human brand of evil everyone suspects him of being. Throughout the show, people have been unsure how to react to John and his miracles. Here, even as Butchie lists them one by one, everyone's too panicked by the "Shaun will soon be gone" message to believe there could be a higher power at work; instead, they compare him to a terrorist like Bin Laden (who himself claims to be doing the work of his god).

And what does "Shaun will soon be gone" mean, anyway? Maybe this has all been in service of making Cissy sign with the now benevolent Linc, and Shaun will be "gone" on the surfing circuit, I don't know. But I have a sinking feeling we're not going to find out nearly enough in the course of the next two episodes, not when we keep stopping for weird digressions like Barry and his teddy bear.

Some random thoughts on a random episode:
  • Callback to the Sermon: "The internet is big," just like mud, fur and the stick.
  • I was pretty sure that was Milch's voice on the intercom taunting Barry, and Steve Hawk's insider report at confirms it.
  • I've noted in the last few episodes that Keala Kennelly's gotten much better as an actress, but she's not so good with the monologuing.
  • Unexpected levity: Butchie's "If this is an intervention, I'm clean."
  • Luis Guzman has been underused, but he had a bunch of funny moments here, including Ramon's "Go, Barry, get your vision, get your number, go, go, go, Barry!" chant, his reference to Barry's man-purse, his monologue at the shuffleboard court ("Alert! Alert! Diving in! Latino verging on luck!"), and, especially, his explanation of where John came from. ("Cincinnati?")
  • I'm still having a hard time reconciling Jennifer Grey as Dickstein's fiancee with the Jennifer Grey of the '80s, or even the Jennifer Grey of "It's Like, You Know..." If it wasn't for the voice, I'd refuse to believe it.
What did everybody else think?


evie said...

Off topic, but I don't know where else to put this. Why aren't any of you leading TV critics writing up The Kill Point, or following it? I caught up with it yesterday (the pilot and following episode) and am blown away at how good it is. I wish there was more discussion about it on these tv blogs.

Anonymous said...

*That's* Jennifer Grey? Man, she looks different even from the TV show she was on where she played herself!

ITA with your take on it. For every great moment, there's a WTF? moment getting in the way and dragging things down. I did like Barry making his teddy bear wave to Ramon, though.

Edward Copeland said...

Was I the only one who thought (hoped) that when Barry discussed turning the bar into a theater, a time portal would open up and Bryan Cox and his Deadwood troupe would stroll in.

Anonymous said...

If only, Edward Copeland! I did think, "So now see what thematic purposes Milch had for the Langrishe Players in Season 4."

I follow discussion of JFC on several blogs, and they all seem seems to be generating more and more comments along the lines of “That’s it. I’m done!”

This is not my “I’m done!” exactly. I know I’ll watch the two remaining episodes. But I’ve reached a resigned place. This show hasn’t clicked for me and likely never will. It’s a puzzle, and I like puzzles, but if we’re going to explore the inherent connection and oneness of all, I guess I’m drawn less to this dry mysticism of ones and zeroes and more to the old-fashioned packaging of Reverend Smith’s Luke 12 and 13.

Oh, that sweet Rev ... what a lovely, open-hearted character he was. What bothers me most about JFC is its "stinginess: with information and revelation, of course, but also emotional stinginess. Why, when isolation is an anathema to the Milchian worldview, are we, the viewers, kept at such distance? I can name a dozen residents of Deadwood I adored; the denizens JFC are so bizarre -- their behavior so ungrounded -- that I’m having trouble connecting to or caring about any of them. With no one to care for or about, what’s at stake?

Edward Copeland said...

The supporting characters are so much more interesting than the main ones, but I would give it up if it didn't only have two episodes left. However, if somehow it gets renewed, I don't think I'd watch the new season with or without HBO.

Anonymous said...

What about the symbol next to John on his tape? Didn't Meyer Dickstein or whatever the lawyer's name is draw the same symbol in the cement? And could it be what John meant three weeks ago when he said "On the wall, the line and circle are huge. On the wall, the man at the wall makes a man from the circle and line. The man at the wall makes a Word on the wall from the circle and line."?

And didn't John say at the beginning of the episode he would be murdered twice today? Since next weeks episode is listed as "His Visit: Day 8," do we count his stabbing himself? Even if that isn't suicide, what would be the second murder?

Patrick said...

But, the show isn't a puzzle, and approaching it like that is only going to lead to disappointment. I don't think we'll ever get exact answers about what's going on, but the journey along the way is so enthralling I don't mind. The show is about the moments of wonder and magic, where the characters encounter something bigger than themselves, the push to come together vs. the selfishness pulling them apart. I think it's fantastic, even better than Deadwood and up there with the absolute best shows of all time.

Anonymous said...

I'm just glad Bruce Greenwood will be in next week's episode. I missed his levitating ass.

Edward Copeland said...

Catching the preview which shows more of the drawings of the big and little stick figures, I couldn't help be reminded of part of the Owl Cave petroglyph in Season 2 of Twin Peaks.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I quite liked the episode, but here's hoping it eclipses John's sermon in quality in the next two. For me, the only thing keeping it down is the lack of focus on John, and of course, the lack of the patriarch. I'm just hoping that HBO with its lackluster schedule will deem fit to bring it back for another season.

That said, it was nothing like last night's Big Love. That was riveting television.

Anonymous said...

ah lord... what hath we become?? Look at us... scattering around trying to push and press this thing into all the hollywood formulas we say we hate. Mmmm... i guess we should all tune back into Grey's? We are not getting a steady dose of epiphany, of death, or revelation, or neato new music montages?

Maybe to quote John himself... What do you want, viewer?

I'll stand by this show as probably the best writing on TV right now. And arguably the most honest and realistic show as well.

I know it's not often that we see things like this... so little do we get what we want on TV that we forget what it looks like when we do. But i would hazard a guess that if you are writing on this blog, you are looking for something of a higher standard, that doesn't underestimate you... So let's not start underestimating ourselves.

Anonymous said...

Interesting to note the isolation of the characters, and of Imperial Beach itself. Not many shots of crowds or, compared to Deadwood, the bustle and hubbub of a community. The characters are distended, coming together only at the hotel, even there scattershot.

Somebody (maybe it was earlier on this blog) asked what this show had to do with surfing. It is like surfing, watching the horizon for the next wave, expectant, to be carried far or nowhere at all, only to return to watching.

dark tyler said...

The one thing I'm still trying to figure out, is the significance of the casting. Surfers, one-hit wonders (Dylan! Al Bundy!) and actors who play nothing but stereotypical supporting roles (The Latino! The gay guy!) all together. I believe nothing is random in Milch's works, so I'm sure there's something there.

Alan Sepinwall said...

The way a (non-Milch) producer on the show explained it to me, the point of all this casting -- and the stereotypical characters that many of them played at the start -- is part of a "don't judge a book by its cover" theme.

dark tyler said...

Interesting. It still doesn't let them off the hook for that kid that plays Shaun, though. I mean, you want surfers? Fine, get surfers. Get someone like the girl that plays Kai. No Edie Falco, but she does the job! That kid, though... insufferable.

As for the rest... I wouldn't want to be in their place when they realized they were getting this job exactly because they've not had a hit in over a decade. On the other hand, they get to speak Milch's words, so maybe I would want to be in their place. :)

About Me said...

I still don't believe that John is Jesus. I believe that in this scenario Sean is Jesus and he's probably going to go on some kind of pilgramage and disappear for a while.

John from Cincinatti is a messenger of some sort.

Don't feel bad if you can't figure it out. Like all good HBO serial dramas, the story is being laid out in front of you slowly.

Mitch is coming back enlightened.

Hopefully, they'll dial down the anger quotient on the Sissy character.

She has no redeeming qualities anymore. She used to but they disappeared.

She's a mess.

Isn't she supposed some kind of anchor for the family? Or is that Kai?

I am confused.

Anonymous said...

Great show, great writing, great actors, great mystery:

John's identity can only be defined by identifying his father and we are undertaking our quest to define John without that crucial knowledge.

In that great mystery lies the primary attraction of the show. In every episode we are sorting and sifting dialogue, actions, scenes and storylines for just a little bit more information from John or about John that will allow us to identify his father, and thus let us know precisely who and what John is and what his objective is. When we don't get enough information to allow us to solve the mysterious identity of John's father and/or when we get contradictory/ambivalent evidence that does not advance our quest, we are driven to the heights of manic frustration. I know just how Cass feels!

But isn't that precisley the frustration that humankind has had through the ages? Although always searching for clues,information and facts that would help us mortals know and define a supreme being (along with identifying and clarifying the supreme being's grand plan) the information presented to us is never concrete enough for many to find the answer and to be at peace with it. Some need only the Bible and it's teachings as the evidence to define the supreme being and his plan, some are satisfied with other holy books, teachings and creeds, mathematics, science, etc. Acceptance of these forms of evidence relies solely on the believer's faith in the evidence.

Many others, the "doubting Thomases", aren't satisfied by faith in these types of evidence alone and require more tangible evidence. These are the folks who are still on the quest. These are the folks who daily experience the frustration of knowing there may be some higher power but are stifled in their search because if that higher power exists, it is not doing anything to directly make that fact known.

Then, while the quest is ongoing, one person appears bearing a strange message; a different way of thinking, like nothing that any of the searchers are used to. It makes no sense. And in the end, the searchers ignore the message because the speaker is odd and because of their inability to grasp the simplicity of what appears to be nonsensical. This is the second aspect of the show that has us all hooked. And, because we can't define who or what John is, and becasue he is bringing his father's message in a strange fashion ("parrot talk"), he is being ignored, despised, persecuted and held in suspicion.

Now, I have to ask Vietnam Joe how that herb is treating him.

There is a great fansite where discussion of this show reveals just how wonderful a show it is. Alan, if you like, take a look here, it just may make a believer of you yet!