Monday, June 18, 2007

John From Cincinnati: 'His Visit: Day Two' (1x02)

After an intriguing, but not entirely conclusive first episode, John From Cincinnati comes into its own with a mesmerizing second episode. I can think of very few series that have had me hooked as much as this one does at this point. Much like Six Feet Under, this one just feels special, it’s a unique world that I want to learn more about and I really can’t wait to see what they come up with next week. But first, let’s review what went down this week.

I’m still a bit baffled about how baffled some people are by the series. There’s some mysterious elements, but also a strong central narrative that anchors us emotionally. The major issue this episode is the merits and problems with the mysterious promoters. Cass tries to lure Mitch into a starring role in her documentary film, but there’s some kind of larger agenda involving her and Linc. Thematically, we’re addressing the troubles with commercialization. Mitch still loves to surf, he’s out every morning, but he doesn’t want to be a part of the surfing machine that has grown up around the sport. He sees what it has done to Butchie and hopes to save Shaun from the same fate.

I’ve only seen a couple of episodes of Deadwood, but that show was interested in the way a society is formed out of chaos. Here, we’re looking at people in an almost apocalyptic world. Whenever they’re away from the water, the color is almost overwhelmingly yellow, an oppressive sun you can feel through the screen. This is a world slightly removed from traditional reality and authority, and the promoters are working to spoil the edenic life Mitch has built for Shaun and his family.

Concurrent with this, we’ve got more stuff with John. It’s still unclear what his exact nature is, but it’s a lot of fun to watch him mimic the actions of those around him and play at being human. The scene in the bathroom at the hospital is particularly cool, as he makes sound effects to mimic what’s going on around him. In this episode, he seemed a bit less like a prophet and a bit more like a mentally challenged person, but there’s clearly something larger going on here.

The earthquake, which leads into Shaun’s accident works in the same way that the earthquake in Altman’s Short Cuts does, giving us a major incident that unites all the disparate plot lines. We see the people at the hotel, the Yosts at the ocean and Bill in his apartment, all wondering what’s going on. It’s easy for a show to get splintered into a bunch of little shows, with no overall unifying direction, so this works well to give things a unity and singular sense of purpose.

Shaun’s accident also serves this purpose, and it was a pretty shocking development. The scene with Mitch, Cissy and the Doctor is the first moment when the characters felt emotionally real. On the best shows, the characters take on a life of their own and begin to write themselves. Joss Whedon talked a lot about this, how in a longform narrative, the characters determine their own destiny. On shows that don’t quite work, you always feel the writer’s hand, manipulating characters to fulfill specific plot points. On great shows, you don’t even think about the writer, everything that happens feels like an inevitability. Last episode, there was a lot of quirkiness in the characters, and that always makes you feel the writer’s hand. It can still be cool, but it’s not going to feel emotionally real.

Shaun’s accident is an artificially imposed incident, but it puts the characters in a very real emotional moment, and through their reactions, we can understand a lot about them. It’s notable that a lot of successful shows begin with a traumatic event. When we see Nate Fisher on Six Feet Under reacting to his father’s death, we see him stripped raw, and then can better recognize the layers of personality that he puts on to deal with others. Ultimately, the best shows are ones where you can tell when characters lie because you know them so well that you can understand why they lie and what they’re hiding. I’m not saying this show is there yet, but the hospital scenes do give us great insight into the characters and bring them closer to that point of taking on their own life.

The episode ends with Bill bringing the bird into the operating room, drawing Shaun back to life. It’s an incredible moment full of a deep, mystical power. The show has a weird vibe and there was real magic in that moment, the sense of something much larger than the characters falling into place. The cut to TV on the Radio’s “Staring at the Sun” for the closing credits did a great job of sustaining that mood.

That scene, combined with John’s odd muttering all built up a lot of mystery and possibility for next week. I really loved this episode, it took the potential of the first episode and transformed into a legitimately great hour of TV. And next week looks even better. One line from the preview had me particularly interested, John saying “Kai, see God.” This show has that same unique feel that Twin Peaks did, and I don’t think I’ve seen on TV since. It’s not forced quirk, it’s an askew worldview that creates a world of mystery and wonder to journey to each week. This show is fantastic, and I hope it gets a chance to build the fanbase it deserves.

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