Thursday, April 03, 2008

John From Cincinnati Revisited

Yesterday, John From Cincinnati finally came out on DVD. The much maligned series has become something of a punchline since it aired. I’ve got a Google News Alert for the series, and will frequently get sent an article in which some new show is panned, with the only caveat being “at least it’s not as bad as John From Cincinnati.” So, I figure now is as good a time as any to tell people who haven’t seen the show that it’s one of the greatest TV series of all time, an intricately constructed world that builds and evolves over the course of ten episodes. It’s one of the most joyous series of all time, a unqiue mix of strange supernatural content and very real, gritty human emotion.

I watched the first episode tonight, and it holds up really well. The opening credits sequence is probably my favorite of any show. The building guitar line over those first shots of water leads us up above the waves in a mix of contemporary and classic imagery. And the big bang happens in there as well. Just hearing the song and seeing those images brought me back to the summer, to watching the show on Sunday nights, eagerly awaiting each episode.

My experience of watching the show paralleled what happened on it. I started out watching it alone, and got some other people hooked on it as it aired. So, a community built up around the show, and every Sunday, we’d be there to watch it. There are some works that define an era for me. Summer 2001 for me was playing wiffleball in the evening, then coming home to watch X-Files season three and read Sandman: The Kindly Ones. It couldn’t have been more than a couple of nights that this happened, but it’s come to represent the entire era in my mind.

Summer 2007 is wrapped up in JFC, and watching the show brings back a lot of good memories. I think the show is really about social gatherings, people coming together and building something, and that’s part of what makes me love it so much. Watching the first episode, it’s not quite what it will become. It’s weird to see people who aren’t cast regulars on the show, but at this point there are only about ten main characters, it’ll take a bit for the cast to double. But, the roots of most of what’s to come are in place, and there’s a lot of seeming non-sequiters that make a lot more sense once it’s clear where Milch is going.

Hopefully the DVD release will salvage the show’s reputation. Are we so close minded that this sort of magical realism, this spiritual storytelling has no place on TV? Realism’s great, but in a lot of ways this show feels more real to me than a lot of so called ‘realistic’ stuff. Everyone in the world actually lives in their own mind, they perceive things through a cloud of dreams and memories, and that’s why the supernatural flourishes in the show work for me. They externalize the mental trauma these people are carrying around. I’m reminded of something Grant Morrison said, that the reason he can relate to superhero comics is his problems feel huge, he feels like more like Superman battling a renegade sun than some guy dealing with some personal problems. Our problems feel huge to us, they feel of cosmic importance, and the ultimate message of the show seems to be that saving one person can save the world, even if that person is yourself.

As the show goes on, it takes on a trance like quality, mental and physical reality collapse on each other until they’re virtually indistinguishable. The best example of this is the legendary John speech in episode six, I remember the first time I saw it, I didn’t really get what was said, but I knew I’d witnessed something profound. And that’s what this show is, it’s a spiritual experience on film, and I’m so happy Milch had a chance to make it.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful post, Patrick. I felt the same way about the whole experience of JFC.

joanna said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
joanna said...

I remember you wrote about JFC some time ago.
Magical realism is recognized and lauded as a literary style (or method), unfortunately TV is moving in the opposite direction, towards mundane - reality shows, etc.
Appreciation of 'John' is inevitable, if not now, than in the future.
Thank you for writing so well about it, Patrick, good luck blogging, don't quit.
I had to delete the previous comment, found a misspelled word.

Patrick said...

There's not quitting in my future. And, I've been watching through the rest of the series on DVD and it's even better than I remember. Each episode is its own little spiritual experience, it's just amazing.