Sunday, June 10, 2007

"They're over-exposing these masked midgets.": John from Cincinnati

I've watched the pilot of John from Cincinnati three-and-a-half times now, and I still don't quite know what to make of it. I tried to write a preview of the show for this site but kept coming up short at, "Okay. I don't know what's going on here, but I'll follow David Milch anywhere." And I've seen the first three episodes!

The last time I felt this ambiguous about a show from a producer I had respected in the past, it was Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and we all know how THAT turned out, so I'm not ready to sign my checks over to David Milch completely, but Milch is ten times the TV auteur Aaron Sorkin ever was, and Deadwood is one of my favorite TV series of all time (and, to be honest, that one took a little while to get going too, though the sterling direction of Walter Hill got us through a bumpy pilot). So even though I had heard the gossip that the show was a bit of a head-scratcher, I eagerly took it on in the SDD summer TV draft -- I was ready for another challenge after reviewing Sopranos episodes. But I surely didn't expect this -- a barely explicable series that just gets weirder.

One thing I will say for John is that it's hard to stop watching it. It's filmed gorgeously (not that it takes much to screw up SoCal beach location shooting), and the sense of hazy doom that hangs over the proceedings (which mix surfing, illegal immigration, vague spirituality and teddy bears into some pseudo-mystical gumbo) is perfectly pitched. But even though the show is compelling, it's often because you're not sure what the hell it is you're watching. Deadwood also took a while to get its main plot of a lawless society gradually turning into a civilized one going, but that show had several compelling performances and subsidiary plots to grasp onto while you waited for the main plot to kick into gear. Here, the whole series feels like a collection of cultish bits slapped together into a vague semblance of a plot. And the acting is a bit spotty, as if the actors didn't know what to do with some of the stranger, more elliptical Milch speak here. Bruce Greenwood nails every scene he's in, but Rebecca DeMornay often seems lost, and Ed O'Neill occasionally just goes over-the-top as if he didn't know what else to do.

Still, the Milch speak IS there. At first, it's jarring to hear all of those verbal curlicues coming out of characters who are fairly obviously living in "the real world," but you grow used to it as you realize that all of the characters speak this way. And Milch has some great lines he just tosses out here (the long discussion of the California lottery commission pamphlet's guide to self-defense is an instant winner). But the overall effect is that of a very talented writer tapdancing around while we wait for him to show us his next great trick.

Still, John from Cincinnati is instantly compelling. I can see why a lot of critics have derided it as awful, but I feel a sort of calm that this is all leading somewhere. Maybe it won't lead anywhere and I'll be proven a dupe, but John is an interesting look at a sort of end times miasma. It's not instantly as great as NYPD Blue or Deadwood, but what could be? For now, I'm willing to see where this whole thing is going.

1 comment:

Carrie said...

I have no idea what the hell is going on, but I am in for at least season one. If I can put up with two years of Carnivale, I can certainly handle this. Most comments I've heard call the John character annoying, but I LOVE HIM. I adore his repetitive, mimicking, singsong dialogue. I laughed at his magic pockets. He's just funny to me. Also, how can you not dig that screming match between Mitch and Butchie? That alone would get me to tune in for episode two.

Side note: Dylan McKay is looking rough.