I wrote a nothing post about “The Sopranos” last year and forgot about it. But the word “spoilers” was in the title, and even though I made it clear I didn’t have any spoilers, and didn’t want any spoilers, it got thousands of clicks when the series ran its final nine episodes this spring. Well, I like “The Sopranos” a lot, I’m with those who think it’s the best television series in history, so I kept writing about it, and kept getting bunches of hits. Who knows how far anyone read into my musings — the mania was for spoilers. But it drew a crowd.
Will history repeat itself when I write about “John from Cincinnati,” HBO’s “Sopranos” successor?
Seemingly, no. “John From Cincinnati,” or JFC as its rabid fans would call it if the show had any rabid fans, is the weirdest, most off-putting show I’ve ever seen on television. And yet, I’ve stuck by it to the end, which comes — ah, relief — this Sunday night. I can’t imagine HBO picking up this show for another season, so if the writers have any explanation for themselves, it will probably have to come Sunday.
What do I hate about this show? Rebecca de Mornay’s character spends most of every show screaming and cursing in a voice that reminds you of worn-out brakes. “John,” the mystical idiot savant who doesn’t mind being stabbed because it heals right away, stands like he always needs to pee — which is ironic, since the first clue that John isn’t normal is that he never “dumps out” — alleged surfer talk for making #2.
The remaining characters all play like out-of-place refugees from “NYPD Blue,” show co-creator David Milch’s fondly remembered cop drama. They talk in that kind of ornate, faux-Damon Runyon style that is Milch’s trademark, but where it worked on “NYPD Blue” and “Deadwood,” it seems completely wrong here. I haven’t read the novels of the other co-creator, Kem Nunn, but he has a lot of credibility as a chronicler of surfer culture, and the show’s surf atmospherics seem right. But there’s not enough footage in the water!
The opening credits are the best part of the show, but they are a tease.
The song is “Johnny Appleseed” by Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, from the album Global A-Go-Go. I am grateful to “John From Cincinnati” for introducing me to the song by the late co-leader of the Clash. But all those great vintage surfing shots? Why can’t we have more of those?
The show’s HBO website does have one valuable feature, the “Inside the Episode” essays by writer Steven Hawk. They’re weird, but compelling. They go so far “inside” the episode, you hardly recognize it. Regarding last week’s show, he said this:
I was enthralled during the shooting of the scene in the Snug Harbor parking lot when Ramon (Luis Guzman) shows Barry and Doctor Smith (Garret Dillahunt) the Avon catalog he received from Rosa the friendly rose-growing neighbor. Ramon, as excited as we’ve ever seen him, urges his two friends to turn to the catalog’s middle spread, which is sprinkled with the mysterious stick-man figure that’s been increasingly prominent in recent episodes. As Smith dashes off to get his own catalog, Ramon nearly pleads with Barry:
RAMON: Listen to me! Look at this!
BARRY: I am looking, I am seeing Avon in an entirely new light…
RAMON: This is big. This is huge.
BARRY: I think it very well could be.
RAMON: I want to cook something.
BARRY: I could eat.
Doctor Smith arrives, shows his catalog to Ramon and Barry.
BARRY: Those same marvelous figures.
SMITH (to Ramon): What did she tell you about these?
SMITH: This is huge.
“Big” and “huge,” of course, are words John said repeatedly during his strange, hypnotic parking lot speech at the end of Episode Six. And don’t forget that Ramon cooked for everyone during that speech. But my favorite aspect of this scene is the threesome’s inexplicable sense of joy and purpose. Here’s what Milch told the actors during rehearsal: “What’s happening is, all these subliminal cues are being activated without your knowing it. Essentially what you’re doing is activating neural connections. They know [the appearance of the stick figures in the catalog] is huge simply because they’ve trusted their intuitions. A wave of purposefulness is carrying all of you, even while you’re thinking, ‘I don’t know what’s happening here…'”
In other words, you need not know exactly what’s going on to be moved by the universe.
Good to know!
If the show works at all, it probably does work on the subliminal level Milch was suggesting. Why are these people happy? Why are these people mad? Why don’t these people notice how cracked everyone else around them is, and run away?
Maybe after Sunday night, the dozens of odd mysteries about which I’m not all that curious will be resolved. Or maybe they won’t, but my “neural connections” will be clicking away, causing an unaccountable improvement to my life. There must be some point to this show.