Monday, June 11, 2007

John From Cincinnati: 'His Visit: Day One' (1x01)

After coming home from college, I subscribed to HBO. The primary reason for this was the need to see the last episode of The Sopranos as it aired, in a controlled environment. But, the channel has consistently produced the most challenging, exciting shows on TV, so I’m keeping the subscription even after the departure of its signature show, and that means I get the chance to check out their new shows, the most prominent of which is John From Cincinnati, a drama about three generations in a family of surfers and a mysterious visitor who intervenes in their lives.

Most reviews have focused on the show’s impenetrability, presenting it as a baffling, enigmatic narrative that’s hard to latch on to. Certainly there are odd pieces, but I think there’s a fairly standard hook for viewers. Like a lot of HBO shows, this is a family drama with a twist. The twist is a bit less obvious than a family that’s in the mob of a family that runs a funeral home, but it’s the same basic structure. The Yosts are a bit more abrasive than the Fishers, but we’ve got that same basic structure of a family divided that has to learn to live together.

But, the twist is unclear. John is a mysterious character, but I’ve got no problem with not understanding who or what he is just yet. There’s nothing wrong with mystery and I don’t think we need to find out soon. He is the catalyst that sets the series into motion and I’m sure his true nature will become apparent in time. For now, he provides a mix of humor and prophecy, implying that the show is part of some larger cosmic narrative. The supernatural events, Mitch’s levitation, the resurrected bird all portend something spiritual and important down the line.

In its odd events and supernatural periphery, the show resembles Carnivale, and I fear this show will follow that show’s journey to an early cancellation. I think people like supernatural stuff, but aren’t comfortable with real ambiguity. Look at the way people view Lost, constantly wanting answers, ignoring the fact that it’s the mystery that is most intriguing, the unknown, not any answers. Part of the reason for this is that any answer is arbitrary, the creation of writers who may or may not have even intended anything concrete at the beginning. David Milch might have just thought it was cool to have a guy levitating, so he threw it in there. As writers, the story tells itself, and in the best shows, the characters take on a life of their own and guide the narrative. Trying to artificially impose answers on mysteries can destroy what makes a show special.

But, the supernatural elements aren’t the core of this show. I like the way they’re placed into an otherwise very real environment. The show is primarily about the family’s struggle to reunite. I like Mitch and Bill, but many of the characters aren’t quite fully realized yet. It’s obviously early, but I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to feel for these characters in the way I do for the people on Buffy and Six Feet Under. Those characters were flawed, but they felt a bit more open than these do. It’s a very abrasive bunch, a colder attitude that on those shows.

But, it’ll take another episode to see how everything fits together. What does the hotel have to do with the Yosts? Is there some kind of larger supernatural plan, or is the show more just a series of personal issues? I really enjoyed the pilot, and I’ll definitely be back for a second episode. I think the show has just enough weird to make it more than a typical family drama, without going into overly quirkly territory. There’s a lot of potential here, but I really have no idea what the show will be like on a weekly basis. One thing I’m pretty sure of is that the show isn’t likely to be embraced by a wide audience. But, we shall see.

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