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Monthly archives: July 2007


Still Watching "John" (So You Don't Have To)
2007-07-30 16:40
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Like everybody who does what I do, I suppose, I have a love/hate relationship with Entertainment Weekly. I almost dedicated an entire post to complaining about the fact that for "The Must List" a few weeks ago they gave "Entourage" as an identifying credit for Malcolm McDowell. Malcolm McDowell! Geez, the only way they could possibly have skewed less relevant is with Star Trek Generations.

I don't know why EW keeps taking potshots at "John from Cincinnati," as they did in the TV listings this week. The battle for viewers' hearts and minds has already been lost in this case, and David Milch and his bloated cast are merely now engaged in the entertainment-biz equivalent of playing out the string. Compared to the deafening silence that met the burnoff of the last couple of episodes of "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," the fall season's closest comparable failure, the critical beating "John" is (still) taking resembles one of those "games" fifth grade boys play where everybody just jumps into a pile and whales on the littlest kid. (Umm... no idea why my mind went there.)

It wasn't until last night's episode that I finally concluded that "John from Cincinnati," in addition to being doomed in terms of its chances of renewal, is past the point of no return when it comes to cohering as a valid artistic statement. It wasn't any particular downturn in the show's quality that did it in in my estimation, but rather the fact that since I managed to locate the third season of "Deadwood" on sale on DVD last week, I've been completely sucked back into that show's unimaginably vast world and "John" utterly pales by comparison.

The first episode of "Deadwood" I ever saw was the third episode of the second season, "New Money." It's rather an unusual entry point for the series, as you know if you've seen it, because it's the episode where Ian McShane spends the whole hour writhing on the floor in agony as Al Swearengen is incapacitated with a kidney stone. Rather than holding forth in his usual riveting style, most of McShane's lines of dialogue in "New Money" read something like "urrrAGGGHarrrRRRGH." However, it's impossible not to watch the episode and come away with the impression that Swearengen is the prime mover of events in Deadwood and the most important character in the show's vast ensemble. The deference with which all of the Gem's various visitors treat the unspeaking Al, through his locked door, makes his influence plain. You could have a "Deadwood" without Swearengen physically present, but there's absolutely no way his impact wouldn't still be felt in every scene. He's a force, and he's the best example of why the cultured, hyperintellectual David Milch is so often drawn to setting his storytelling on the far margins of polite civilization, whether it's the Black Hills or Imperial Beach, CA.

The trouble with "John from Cincinnati," or at least one of the more glaring problems, is that the central character is a complete inversion of Swearegen. Austin Nichols' guileless prophet/saint/alien has no ability to effect change on the people surrounding him, only to make the acuteness of their misery ever more evident. He's more like a catalyst, as best as I can interpret matters, but if anything Milch has gone too far in showing that the lives of the Yost family and their friends were already surreal and in crisis long before John arrived on the scene. The idea that a friendly, poofy-haired innocent somehow will spur them all to redemption is one that the viewer unconsciously rejects almost immediately. "John" seems to take as thesis the idea that no one is beyond saving, which is a vastly more pat and insulting theme than the fascinating look "Deadwood" gave at a specific place in time where the completely irredeemable were briefly free to shape their lives in their own revolting manner.

In a very real sense, it is the success of "Deadwood" that doomed "John from Cincinnati." Why? Because the style of filmmaking that Milch and his confederates developed on the earlier series worked so well for "Deadwood" that the writers tried to move it right over to "John." The huge difference in ultimate goals of the two shows, though, makes the "Deadwood" model poisonous for its successor. It's no secret that rewrites for both shows took place right up to the very moment actors were on the set staging their scenes. Rather than creating an overall arc in advance, Milch prefers to put his players in place and let the logic of the characters dictate the development of events. This works for "Deadwood" because while the path is unclear the end point of the show (whether we get to see it or not) is obvious. Inevitably, traditional structures of governance and law will arrive in the Dakotas, and men like Al Swearengen will be forced to either submit or find another, further place to pursue their fortunes. Every actor on the series, no matter which side of the law and order divide their role falls on, is aware of this. Even on the rare occasions Milch is unable to find a later justification for an earlier scene, the narrative dead-ends on "Deadwood" serve a larger thematic purpose which is intuitively clear to creator, actor, and viewer alike.

But with "John from Cincinnati," all Milch has is a starting point, and it's simply not enough. Because the ultimate goal is completely unclear, none of the actors has even the chance to become an avatar for the show's overall progress in the way McShane did for "Deadwood." The single most impressive performance on "John from Cincinnati" has been that of Garrett Dillahunt as the doctor who treated Shaun before his broken spine magically repaired itself. Dillahunt, unlike every other member of the cast, plays his role precisely the way someone in the real world would: he's certain a miracle has occurred, convinced that some sort of change in his life is required, and has not even the faintest inkling of an idea what that change is. Dillahunt's mixture of bliss and befuddlement is kind of the only right choice, but hardly something you can carry a show around, which is why all of the other players seem straining to pull in different directions. This hasn't flattered anyone, from Luis Guzman's myopic self-interest to Bruce Greenwood's first figurative, than literal absence to Ed O'Neill's fulminating rage. Worst done by in the whole ensemble is Rebecca De Mornay, whose incredibly unpleasant -- nearly unwatchable -- temper tantrums aren't at all justified by the ever-more frequent references in the dialogue elsewhere to Cissy as the "queen of ball-busters." By giving his characters a few baseline traits but no end point, Milch is encouraging growth in the wrong direction. Shaun grows ever more vacant, Linc ever more venal, Butchie irresponsible, and so on. And there's a couple of people in the cast, notably Emily Rose's completely useless Cass, who were never even given so much as that one-word summarization, leaving them undefined and adrift.

It's still worth watching "John from Cincinnati," even though its status as a failure seems now confirmed, because it's got a number of amazing performers perhaps working as hard as they ever have. Pretty much every scene with Dayton Callie in it is worth watching, even though I still don't have the faintest idea why he's on the show at all. The pure Milchian complexity of the dialogue spouted by O'Neill, Matt Winston, Stephen Tobolowksy and others is still a joy to digest even if it serves no larger purpose. What's more, the show is awesome-looking; the proliferation of DVDs and then the introduction of the HD format have really led to a revolution in the visual sense and style of television drama. Whether it's a long, deep-focus view of Cass and John strolling hand in hand under a border surveillance tower or the magnificently realized grunge of the motel, "John from Cincinnati" is really neat to look at. It's too bad that despite the tireless efforts of a large regiment of talented filmmakers there's not a whole lot of substance behind the style.

Summer TV Update, Sorta
2007-07-25 18:24
by Mark T.R. Donohue

It's been a slow summer. How can I tell? I was away from my digital video recorders for almost two weeks and neither was full when I returned. Nor did it take me a particularly long time to catch up with the few shows I am monitoring this season.

"Flight of the Conchords" is my favorite thing on TV in ages. The more of a music geek you are, the more you will appreciate it (particularly the last episode which was pretty much only funny if you were an intensely studied David Bowie fan) but for the most part it's a sweet and harmless show that is way more than the sum of its modest ambitions. The first couple of episodes were so perfectly formed (plus frontloaded with the best songs) that it's kind of seemed in decline ever since the mugging show, but I think if they finish the season and put out a well-appointed DVD set in a few months they'll have done all they need to do to secure their places in my all-time pantheon. Man, "Business Time" is a great song. Maybe they don't have a great song for every episode (I couldn't remember the songs from the "Yoko" episode even after watching it several times), but in the ones where the music serves to drive the light point of the spoken comedy home, like the pilot and the Bowie episode, it's small-screen magic.

Then there's "John from Cincinnati," about which I don't know what to say. I haven't had the intention of giving up on watching it for a second, and maybe that's all you need to know. With all of the television I have absorbed and memorized over the years, I can't remember the last time there was a show that completely eluded me the way "John" does. I don't know what it's about. I don't know where it's going. I don't know why the characters interact in the patterns that they do or what David Milch intends to do with all of the ex-"Deadwood" actors who are amassed in Imperial Beach with no instructions other than to enunciate and to look haunted a lot. I do think it's significant that the last few episodes have gained a lot of narrative momentum, such as it exists in the "John from Cincinnati" world at all, by conveniently getting rid of the Bruce Greenwood character for a couple of days. They should do the same with Rebecca De Mornay's hugely tiresome Cissy. But who would have guessed that Luke Perry's Linc would get a substantial storyline so quickly? And what is the deal already with the blonde girl with the camcorder? And the "Day 5" episode with John rearranging the whole dramatis personae, alive or dead, into TV's weirdest-ever 4th of July barbeque? Enjoy the confusion while you can, I guess, because there is no chance that this completely opaque work of... whatever you want to call it makes it to a second summer's worth of episodes. I already anticipate a DVD set boycotted by an again-rehabbing Milch, leaving a hapless Luis Guzman and Willie Garson two commentary tracks to try and satisfactorily explain exactly what they or anybody else on the show was doing, precisely.

I may be alone in this but I'm enjoying ESPN's "The Bronx Is Burning" quite a bit, particularly for a Yankee hater. There's no reason at all for the detectives and reporters from the Son of Sam case to be castmembers in a running subplot, but the TV versions of Billy Martin, Reggie Jackson, George Steinbrenner, and Thurman Munson we're shown are compelling even if inauthentic. It's a good story and once you get past the poor costuming decisions (Oliver Platt sounds and dresses like Larry David's "Seinfeld" Steinbrenner and John Turturro's prosthetic Martin ears are distracting) and TV-quality acting (except for Turturro), you can follow the version of events being presented fairly well. If I was more familiar with the time period I might be likely to skew more critical.

I have watched on and off since its inception but something always bothered me about "Entourage." Specifically, I didn't get why something billed, paced, and budgeted as a comedy was hardly ever funny. The last couple of episodes of the new season (its fourth, rather murkily distinguished from the end of its third by a one-week absence) have made me laugh out loud more than any in memory. Perhaps the writers are overrelying on the device of dividing the central foursome into a Vince-and-E A-team for hefty stories and a Drama-and-Turtle B-team for comic relief, but that division works every time. Kevin Dillon gets too little credit I feel for crafting a character of pure comic misery in Johnny Drama; normally I feel more bad than tickled by hapless types in comedy, but Dillon makes John Chase so richly deserving of his multiple comeuppances that I don't feel in the least bad taking joy in his pain. And yet somehow he's still just likable enough that part of you roots for him. It's a difficult and thankless role on a show whose cast dynamic and storytelling logic demand that Drama must always suffer. I feel your pain, Johnny Drama.

No Word Yet on Whether They Will Stock the Krusty Brand Home Pregnancy Test
2007-07-01 18:05
by Mark T.R. Donohue

From the AP comes this story about 7-11's clever tie-ins with the "Simpsons" movie, which include most stores selling Buzz Cola, Krusty-O's, and Bartman comics and twelve locations redressed entirely to appear as "Kwik-E-Marts."

While it's true that many 7-11 franchisees are of Indian descent, like the show's iconic Apu character, a company representative is quoted as saying that owners' reactions to the cross-marketing scheme were "overwhelmingly positive." Kumar Assandas, whose Henderson, NV 7-11 franchise is one of the few wrapped in industrial foam to appear as a Kwik-E-Mart, has the last words: "I know it's a stereotype, but it doesn't bother me. Everybody knows it's a joke. I'm a big 'Simpsons' fan myself, and maybe subconsciously it even inspired me to become a 7-Eleven owner."

Update: Here's what the "Kwik-E-Mart" in Denver looks like.