Thursday, June 28, 2007

John From Cincinnati: 'His Visit: Day Two: Continued' (1x03)

This third episode confirms John From Cincinnati’s place as the best show on TV right now, and one of the strongest shows out of the gate ever. The thing that makes me love the show so much is the same thing that made Twin Peaks special, an intangible sense of atmosphere that makes each episode like a trip to a dreamy world of beautiful mystery. Most great TV is character based, telling large scale stories of peoples’ lives changing with time, and as the series moves forward it could get to that, but for now, what makes it great is just hanging out in this world, where it feels like anything could happen.

This episode follows directly after the powerful finale of episode two, exploring the impact of Shaun’s rebirth on the family and those around them. It’s interesting to watch the show’s structure evolve. We’ve got the core family, who are the center of everything, but they very rarely actually do anything. Particularly in this episode, nearly all the action was instigated by the increasingly large circle of odd hangers on who populate the world of Imperial Beach. John was the first to take an interesting in their lives, but at this point we’ve got the three hotel guys, Freddie and his sidekick, Linc and Cass, and now the Doctor.

Because they are the ones who act, I feel like I understand them better and in some ways care about them more than the Yosts. The Yosts are a blank vessel that they can put their hopes and dreams into. Everyone seems to either want to save the Yosts or use them, but we have no real sense of what the Yosts want. I think that’s a large part of what troubled critics and some viewers about the series, we don’t have any sort of traditional central character, it’s just a bunch of weird people going along. We can’t latch onto Mitch or Butchie as the moral center of the series, the role that Bulloch served on Deadwood. We don’t know who’s good or bad, or if good and bad even have any particular meaning on this show.

But, I think the odd ensemble structure works well, particularly as we get to know the characters better. Watching the earthquake at the end of episode two, I immediately thought of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts and its ensembles of semi-connected characters. Both the “See God” sequence and the final half pipe scene again unite disparate members of the ensemble for a climactic moment. Milch has created such vivid, unique characters already. Freddie’s rambling monologue about “Con Te Partiro” was hilarious, and I love that they took the time for a digression like that. It told us so much about the character. And John really started to work for me this episode, he felt like more like a real person and less like a narrative device.

This episode has three music scored setpieces, all fantastic in their own way, which provide the spine of the episode. The first is the escape from the hospital, set to the cover of “Con Te Partiro.” I like how they staged the escape from Freddie’s perspective, so we weren’t just observing the action, we were observing it through his eyes. I loved the lingering, stagy shots of Cass walking across the frame, then Mitch following in an identical shot. That was an artistic flourish that struck me. Then, the scene of Freddie and Palaka trying to distract the media while the Yosts escape was both exciting as an action sequence and really funny.

One of the interesting things about the show is the way only the peripheral characters seem to acknowledge the weirdness of what’s going on around them. The Yosts just sort of accept that Shaun is back, much like they previously accepted that this weird guy John had entered their lives. However, Bill has been aware of this weirdness, he’s the one who questions John and he’s also the one who thinks to bring Zippy into things. The Doctor is the first one to really ponder things, asking questions that no one can really answer. I believe he’s in the credits, so he’ll likely stick around to investigate more of these odd goings on.

As I said, John felt much more real and interesting this week. Before, he was mainly a sounding board for Butchie, but here we see him taking more initiative during his quest to “bone” Kai. John functions in a similar way as Anya or Illyria on Buffy, a not quite human who forces us to look at the world from a new perspective, and see the absurdity of our customs. This was used to comic effect in the “dump” plot last week, here it’s got more edge. The boning starts out as a joke, but becomes more and more odd as things go on.

Everything builds to the crazy scene in which Kai and John finally “bone” and he orders her to “see God.” It’s moments like this that make the show so special, no one else is doing work this idiosyncratic and uniquely powerful. This is Grant Morrison or Alan Moore territory, creating a world where crazy psychedelic experiences just happen and there’s always a larger metaphysical significance to the actions occurring in the narrative.

When Kai sees God, she seems to experience a collective moment of odd buzzing and pain, which she shares with Ramon, Butchie and Vietnam Joe. Speaking about the series, Milch said he chose surfing because waves are the closest we can come to representing the physical field of oneness that connects all things. This is a philosophical notion that has much in common with Morrison’s conception of the universe, that we’re all one organism, which needs to evolve beyond the misconceived notion that we’re actually separate.

So, in that moment do Kai, and the people she or we see experience that oneness? It’s notable that all the people she sees in the vision are people John has come into contact with. Is John there to open their minds to this new evolution? He’s talked a lot about how “The end is near,” so is it possible he’s talking about the end of our current world as the prelude to an impending leap of consciousness. I’d love to see that, and on this show, it’s quite possible. Mitch’s floating could be an expression of his increased consciousness, as is Shaun’s ability to heal.

Regardless, the moment had an odd trippiness to it, and was made even weirder by John’s total ignorance of human social custom. Kai didn’t want him to make her see God again, but he tells her anyway. He doesn’t understand the way things work, a deficiency that seems to get him into some trouble next week. We have a set of social customs that guide our behavior, an understanding of what is and isn’t acceptable. It’s difficult to watch someone just totally disregard those customs, as John does here. It exposes the essential falseness of the social system we’ve established.

Concurrent with this, we’ve got Mitch and Cass talking on the beach. Mitch has a lot of issues with Cissy, with the life he’s leading, and Cass serves as a sounding board for his problems. Mitch probably on some level senses something awry about her, everyone else has connected her to Linc, but Mitch just lets himself believe in the lies she’s constructing for him. He wants that escape from the troubles at home. While we see in the first episode that he and Cissy still love each other, it’s been nothing but tension between them these last two episodes. On a mythological level, Cass is a siren, luring Mitch away from his family to a false idea of happiness.

While the show has a lot of odd stuff, there is still the family drama at the core, and Shaun’s injury has strung out everyone’s emotions. He has no sense of what they’ve been through, but it’s nothing but tension between Butchie and Cissy, who are there without Mitch to mediate their troubles. There’s a lot of raw emotion here, and I think it works well. These characters aren’t as interesting as some of the peripheral figures, but they’re at least emotionally viable.

Butchie’s conversation with the Doctor about his implants was interesting. He recognizes that John can do strange stuff, and also finds it odd that he isn’t dopesick. It’s an interesting statement about addiction that Butchie is worried he’s not sick. The addict creates a cycle of trouble for themselves, if just stopping is this easy, then there’s no excuse for staying on the drugs.

Everything ends with Shaun returning to the half pipe in a scene that swells with meaning and power. Much like last week’s final moments, all the characters come together and we have the sense of a real mystical happening. John again tells Kai to see God, but this time it’s Shaun on the halfpipe, enjoying himself. The cover of “Feeling Good” is a perfect score and the sense of community surrounding the event is what makes it so special. I love the entire sequence, and was happy to see this week’s ending match the power of last week’s.

I can only think of a couple of shows that came out of the gate this strong, Twin Peaks being the prime example. That was a show that absolutely owned in its first three episodes, crafting a unique universe with odd, but well defined characters and a palpable atmosphere of mystery. John does the same thing, and luckily doesn’t have to deal with having a central mystery to answer. There’s so much stuff going on, it’d be easy to keep the show going for a few more seasons. Sadly, it’s already been written off as a failure, but I talked to a few people who have started getting into the show and if it could build an audience by the season finale, maybe we’ll get another year.

I know this may be seen as sacrilegious by a lot of people, but having seen six episodes of Deadwood and three of John, I’d consider John easily the better series. Deadwood is a great show, but it doesn’t have the totally unique voice of this one. I can understand why people hate John for “replacing” Deadwood, but just look at them as two separate show and be happy we’ve got something this great on TV.

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