John From Cincinnati

The short version? I thought it was interesting. The critical reception of John From Cincinnati has not been kind. A cynic might point out that since almost every review can’t help measuring it against either Deadwood (David Milch’s previous show, cut down in its prime if you believe its supporters) or The Sopranos (the finale of which was the lead-in to John‘s premiere), or both, despite the fact that John From Cincinnati is plainly ploughing a different furrow, this is not entirely surprising. And some of the objections do seem odd: I didn’t feel the least bit assaulted by bombast; neither did I find it maddeningly uneventful and cryptic. A better comparison, which some of the reviews do make, would be with Carnivale (an even better comparison is tickling the back of my brain, and I’ll let you know if I manage to pin it down), although for my money what makes John is actually the ways in which it’s different to Carnivale. The atmosphere is less overwhelming and certainly less exotic, while the characters, principally the three generations of Yost men (surfers or ex-surfers all, from wearily angry Mitch through his son, washed-up Butchie, to his son, prodigy Shaun), cast smaller shadows; all of which means that the small miracles that attend mysterious John’s arrival seem somehow sharper, more out-of-place. John’s pockets seem to contain whatever the person talking to him wants them to contain (money, ID, a phone); Mitch briefly floats a few inches off the ground for no apparent reason; and when a series of improbable coincidences bring most of the cast together for the episode’s dramatic high-point, one of them comments on how “circumstances have intervened”. He doesn’t seriously mean it, but we’re left wondering. Some of the criticisms, though, are fair. The claim that the series needs a compelling antihero to center the drama and bring it to life may be daft, but it’s heading in the direction of the most obvious absence, which is the absence of a story. My guess is that this is intentional, that John will catalyse events (he has, literally, no personality of his own, bouncing back almost exclusively learned phrases at those he speaks to, plus a couple of others — “the end is near” and “some things I know and some things I don’t” — that he may have learned before we met him, so it’s hard to imagine him being involved in or changed by events directly), that the point of the show will turn out to be its characters finding a story to live. But a lot hinges on how far Milch wants to go with his fantasy.

3 thoughts on “John From Cincinnati

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