Tuesday, August 14, 2007

John From Cincinnati: The End is Here

I was expecting it to happen, but it was still sad to see that John From Cincinnati has not been asked back for a second season. This may actually be the first HBO drama to not get a second year, and considering how fast this choice follows the finale, it doesn’t seem like HBO was laboring over the decision. I felt like the show was gone after the initial critical salvage, and the weak ratings for the premiere. HBO relies on a critical chorus to make their shows into something that people have to watch. In the absence of that, people didn’t have any reason to check the show out.

There’s a wide variety of reasons for the show’s failure to get a larger following, but ultimately, it all goes back to The Sopranos’ final moments. At 9:58 on June 10, Tony looked up, a screen went to black, and that show was over. People were furious, claiming that somehow they were “owed” an explanation, a “real” conclusion to the story. They apparently didn’t look at the rest of the episode, which resolved all the narrative issues of the season, as well as the lingering tension between Tony and Junior. No, life goes on wasn’t enough, they needed to hear exactly what happened.

I was wiped after the last Sopranos, and didn’t actually watch the John debut then, and I don’t think I’d have reacted well had I watched it immediately after the enigmatic final moments of The Sopranos. But, after a break, I saw episode one and enjoyed it. I never felt the show was anywhere near as impenetrable as people claimed it to be. There was weird stuff, but there were character and narrative hooks to keep you going through that. Not everything should be explained in the first episode of a show, and not everyone’s purpose need be immediately clear.

But, throughout the show’s life, I’ve read countless posts where people ask for answers, and wonder if everything will eventually be revealed. Considering the way Milch works, there’s not likely a master narrative plan in place, rather it’s a series of ideas that are developed through the characters. If you understand the central ideas he’s exploring, it’s not that tough to contextualize the “random” events of the show. Even when there’s not a clear narrative drive, the formation of community formed the backbone of the series and gave a thematic lens through which we could understand everything that happened.

Who is John, where did he come from and why is he here? Milch is only really interested in one question, the why. What does knowing exactly where John comes from tell you that you don’t already know about the show. He’s from some higher plane with a mission for us. That’s what matters, and I think that’s plenty to understand the show by.

But, I’ll admit that it’s a show that takes work. If you’re not willing to think about what you’re seeing and bring parts of yourself to the show, it’s not going to work. I love works that leave room for the viewer’s input. Hollywood filmmaking is all about tying up loose ends and leaving you with a perfect little box. This show is a mess at times, but it’s a mess you can get lost in, become a part of. Much like Grant Morrison’s work, the show needs you to fully realize it. It’s a starting point for the viewer to work from. We are like Dwayne and Jerri in the final episode, watching these events on a monitor, but also involved in them in some way. That’s the beauty of television, the way a world can emerge over time.

I’m probably going to go back and do a larger thematic wrapup, but for now, here’s a bunch of links that provide interesting reading on the series. Probably the most important is this interview with David Milch, conducted yesterday. He talks a lot about the show, the themes underlying it and the process he used to make it. It helped me fill in some gaps, and certainly gives a context for what we see on screen. But, this isn’t a case of us needing the explanation to understand the show, it’s all there if you look for it.

He says something really important here: “Whether we choose to or not is up to us, and so why surfers? Surfers are because my show - "Deadwood" was canceled, inexplicably to me. The suggestion was made to me, why don't you do a show about surfers? Young, masculine, that's the demographic. Can you do that and have it engage your own spirit? "John From Cincinnati."”

So many people were mad at the show for “replacing” Deadwood. Once and for all, this makes it clear that Deadwood was cancelled, it was stopped without his consent, and his choice was either make JFC or make nothing. The thing that baffles me is why HBO continually blurs the line here. I suspect their goal was to make the cancellation of Deadwood easier, by focusing on how Milch was moving onto other projects, but this backfired by alienating much of the Deadwood fanbase. Their recent comment that the Deadwood movies and a second season of JFC was an either or proposition was another huge PR mistake. If they really wanted to help the show, they should have said, great ratings for JFC would be the best way to get the Deadwood movies made, even if it was a lie. I get the feeling HBO’s current management had little love for JFC, and just wanted it to go away.

So, to everyone who keeps bitching about Deadwood’s cancellation and blaming JFC for it, that’s not the case. And, I’d argue that JFC is a far better show. It’s much more unconventional and intellectually challenging. I dug Deadwood, but JFC was working on a different level from practically everything else to ever air on TV.

Another great link to check out is the Inside the Episode features over at HBO.com. They give a lot of insight into Milch’s process, and provide transcripts of crucial scenes, like John’s speech.

To me, the show was a huge success, and I would have loved to see more, but I think it ended in a good place. I see this as the end of John’s initial mission, to save the Yosts. In the process, he created an army around him, people who will spread his message. That group that grew over the course of the series will go on to influence others and his change will gradually infect everyone’s mind. One could argue that the show has done the same thing, got these ideas out there where they can influence people, and now it’s up to us to keep pushing them. First step, does anyone know where I can get one of those Stinkweed shirts?

More to Come! A more analytical look at the series is in the works and will be up later this week, and thanks so much for all the positive blog comments, it's great to know there's other people out there who like the show and are engaging with it in the same way I am.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Very good article on JFC. I'm pissed it was cancelled, I watched Deadwood.

I'm so sick of smart shows getting canceled while reality crap on Network TV keeps growing.

I'm running out of shows to watch. Soprano's gone, JFC gone, Studio 60 gone...

Where are all the good drama's

Also, you can find cool JFC shirts on Cafepress.com, don't know if they have the stinkweed shirts though.

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