Sunday, August 12, 2007

"We are all frail vessels.": John from Cincinnati

Frustrating, enervating and enthralling, John from Cincinnati might be the most awesome show that I couldn't ever determine the quality of. It was the sort of thing I loved watching over and over and over, but I could never quite decide if I was enjoying myself or just enjoying the brief moments of brilliance scattered throughout every episode. The series contained bits that were just masterful, better than anything else I saw on TV this year or any year. But the show also seemed content to just circle around those bits, seemingly certain of its genius. It was content in its own stratosphere, and understanding need not apply.

But I'm not too upset about that -- certainly not as upset about some critics who ditched the show after the first handful of episodes. I loved the cast, especially, and the dialogue was always pleasingly elliptical and rock solid. I didn't really need answers (and sort of resented when the show tried to pile on a bunch of cryptic ones toward the end of the last episode), but if I was going to get them, I wanted to go all out, not just keep burying the lede. I understand anyone who abandoned the show because it didn't seem to have a coherent plot or theme or anything (really, I do), but I also eventually realized that the show was worth watching without a plot.

So what happened in the finale? Was all revealed? I don't quite think so. Shaun came back from Cincinnati (heavily implied to be Heaven) with John, and the opening montage that brought them back, surfing on the clouds, then on the waves, was masterfully shot and edited (set to the strains of Dylan). It was up there with the best stuff the show has ever done. If the rest of the episode was downhill from there, there was really no way it couldn't be downhill.

But I liked a lot of the other scenes, especially where Linc and John discussed John's true nature (and Linc was finally able to pry some answers from the guy, though not so concrete as to satisfy the show's harshest critics) and the scene where everyone went to the car dealership and met a man who may or may not have been John's father. As an added bonus, even more Deadwood alums turned up in various roles, and you got the sense that the show would have just become Deadwood completely in season two.

I think what frustrated so many about the show was that they were used to the typical way to tell a genre-ish story like this. Sure, you have to wait for answers, but when they come, they're concrete and point to bigger questions. John from Cincinnati just didn't care about its mystical overplot, I half suspect. Instead, it was more interested in the tale of how the Yosts, fractured and falling apart, became a family again, and how the town of Imperial Beach became the sort of place where you'd buy a second coming of the Sermon on the Mount.

I don't know if I'll buy JFC on DVD when it comes out (we've been trying to cut back), but there's stuff here that will hang with me for as long as I'm thinking and writing about television. There's other stuff I forgot as soon as it aired, but that's the nature of a beast like this. All you can see are the fins, and you can't quite figure out if you're reeling in a sturgeon or the Loch Ness Monster herself.


Carrie said...

I'm right with you. I loved this television adventure. When the episode ended last night I said out loud (to myself, mind you): "I don't get it." Then 20 seconds later I realized I kind of didn't care. The journey was the destination, to be annoyingly cliche.

I wonder if we'll get another season.

David Bishop said...

I watched JFC to the end. Still scratching my head. Knew there'd be no easy answers. Felt like the TV equivalent of a Grant Morrison Bizarroworld graphic novel, with the drugs turned up to 11.

Genius or twaddle? Somehow it was both.

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