Tuesday, August 14, 2007

"If My Words Are Your Words..."

I wrote that David Milch deserved the benefit of the doubt with his inscrutable allegory John From Cincinnati, and now that the season's over I can judge for reals. There's no doubt that Milch is a brilliant person... but John From Cincinnati is like a piece of modern art, where you stare at something like an aluminum tube splattered with paint and you're just not sure whether the artist is a genius or a hoaxer. There's that little artist's intent wall-blurb talking about the individual's isolation in the Internet age, and it sounds like an interesting idea, but it's just not in the aluminum tube hanging on the wall. Perhaps Milch bit off more than he could chew in ten episodes — Deadwood had a fraction of the philosophical intensity of JFC and it still took Milch three seasons to finally realize his point. The trademark Milchspeak is probably the writers choking on the myriad themes.

So when JFC manages to express a complete, intricate thought about these characters and their universality, it's exhilarating television, and rarely does TV actually say something. The final three episodes, where Imperial Beach coalesces into a community based around their fear and awe of John's miracles, flew by — the scene near the end where some perv makes an obscene comment to Tina was fun (even if some characters' personalities shift way too suddenly), especially compared to the corresponding scene in the fifth (sixth?) episode. On the other hand, when JFC blathers — and it blathers a lot — the show becomes a mess of contradictions: profound and petty, damning and redemptive, stationary and motile, and it's a bitch to muddle through. John's limited vocabulary doesn't help any, as his words spin around what he's trying to say so much it makes you dizzy.

"Ragheads are gonna get themselves eradicated." All the 9/11 imagery, for example, was lost on me — even though it seems to be the turning point in society, interpersonally, for Milch. 9/11, and the reductivist images Americans were bombarded with in the days following changed how we see other people. We categorize everything into "stuff I understand" and "stuff I don't understand," and then work to eradicate the latter rather than understand it. I get that. But from the commentary, not the show, and — I'm sure this is contrary to Milch's expectations — I'm not planning on re-watching the show until I can interpret every scene and line. It's not Ulysses. Redemption generates community, and community generates redemption, and unfortunately many impenetrable plot lines are left purposeless in the cold.


Maybe someone much more brilliant than I — someone with a literature degree from Yale — picked up on the deeper significance of the Stinkweed parade (John's idea), but I just cynically saw it as an evil corporation making a buck off (what looks to us like) a miracle. Milch, perhaps more globally cynical than me, was writing something completely opposite. Who knew? Freddie's imaginary drug war ended simplistically, which seems to work for the show's themes but not the show itself. Mitch's reunion with his family doesn't seem to negate that he's an oblivious new age pinhead. I saw germs of our knee-jerk reaction, and mis-reaction, to fear in the hospital's lawsuit against Dr. Smith, but again I couldn't follow it anywhere. Cunningham remains cryptic with his teddy bears, and I'm pretty sure there's a major plot point regarding him and Cissy that was barely alluded to ("You had shown me a kindness in the past.") and I had to find out about through Wikipedia. Extracting anything out of this show is downright maddening.

I'm afraid that Milch is setting up a second season, given the bizarre "Where are they now?" list that the series ends with, plus the never-explored (apparently) celestial relationship between Cass and Kai. I will not be watching JFC, Part Two, which is never going to get made. Wonderfalls, basically the same concept, except it was a comedy and it was comprehensible, didn't get a second season and it deserved one. Yeah, you still had to think (which viewers of the FOX network apparently don't like), but you could have an epiphany with Wonderfalls. All JFC will give you is a headache.

That being said, Ed O'Neill's performance is amazing. I mentioned this last time, but maybe some Academy of Television Arts and Sciences people didn't read my earlier post. I would love to see a show, nixing the sprawling socio-philosophical ideas, about Bill and Zippy. Maybe they solve crimes together or something.