Sunday, August 05, 2007

"He can't even take a dump. How's he gonna be a master criminal?": John from Cincinnati

After I gave Mitch Yost a hard time in the last few weeks (he hasn't appeared in three straight episodes), the Bruce Greenwood character returned this week and somehow brought some stability with him. Mitch was kind of a shifty guy in previous episodes, one that seemed caught up in events that he didn't even pretend to understand. Now, after a brief sojourn in Mexico and a meet-up with an old friend called The Chemist (a great Howard Hesseman), Mitch has returned, and he's the much-needed ballast to Cissy, who has increasingly seemed detached from any reality in recent episodes. And Mitch's return being such an effective catalyst was the biggest surprise in this John-less episode, probably the best episode since that excellent sixth episode (the one with the scene between Cissy and John at the kitchen window and that moving, transcendent sermon at the motel). A commentor on the episode two weeks ago pointed out that the plot moves like a spirograph, arcing outward and outward to gradually reveal an ever-more-complicated design.

And that design is David Milch's grand old theme: the building of community.

In the second and third episodes, the ones focusing on Shaun's injury and miraculous recovery, the Yosts rebuffed the community that came to offer their condolences and then their expressions of wonder. Now, with Shaun disappearing, seemingly to go off with John on some sort of visit to John's father, the Yosts pull together their increasingly close-knit Imperial Beach community. Cast members who seemed to have nothing to do with anything have banded together with the Yosts and a slew of recurring players to invent a group of people who care deeply about each other and long to help each other through the hard work of living life. They canvass the town to find Shaun, gather together and share a mystical revelation in the form of that weird little stick figure that turns up everywhere (from the strange bar at the hotel that seems to be a place for the dead and living to mingle to an Avon catalog). The importance of these people coming together to share their lives is, in the parlance of John, huge.

And that's, ultimately, what John from Cincinnati seems to be about, both the character and the show. It's about characters finding each other in the pits of despair and bringing a measure of grace to each other (that scene between Barry and the doctor where the doc almost unexpectedly came to Barry's aid was a beaut). As much as I like the overarching mythology of the show, I'm not sure it's the point of the show, and I'm not sure David Milch has any idea beyond the faintest one what, exactly, it all means.

The frustration with this show set in early, and it continues, to an extent. If you can just let go and enjoy the show on the level of it having great dialogue, a handful of great characters and a series of interesting themes and insights, it's quite the good time. But if you require a strong central character (by far the most interesting characters exist on the show's periphery) or a plot that has something of a momentum to it, forget about it.

Still, the show is compelling in its own weird way. It feels like nothing else on TV, now or in the past (I know a lot of people compare it to Twin Peaks, but this feels more religious than that show, if that makes any sense). I don't blame you if you hate it; in fact, I'm often at wit's end with it. But there's a lot there to respect and even love. Last week, I thought I was only in this because there were only two episodes left. This week, I think I might actually watch a second season.

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