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JFC Watch: Lord, There Went Johnny Appleseed

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SPOILER ALERT: Watch John from Cincinnati before you read this, or we’re all going to be toast.

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HBO photo: John P. Johnson

Leave it JFC to conclude–and in the absence of miraculous intervention from Cincinnati, we’ve got to consider this a series finale–with a wrap-up, what-happened-to-them epilogue that left the show more puzzling, not less. “Earth puts Dickstein on retainer”? “Dr. Smith comes back 20 years younger from Cincinnati”? “Mother of God, Cass-Kai”? Mother of God, what do you mean?

But it’s too simplistic to say that the problem with JFC was that it was confusing and that we needed more answers. You can do without a lot of answers if you’re invested in the characters. To me the problem–and there was a lot the show did astonishingly well–was that there were too many moments and scenes that would have been transcendent and beautiful if the series had created an emotional bond with the characters rather than just assuming it.

Case in point, Bill’s closing monologue to his dead wife: that was moving and lovely, and I didn’t need to know who Zippy was or what had become of him to be affected by it. I just needed the script’s clear evocation of his loss and his demons and Ed O’Neill’s believable evocation of them. On the other hand, take Cissy’s response to Mitch ascending to the ceiling. (Take just about anything Cissy has done all season, for that matter.) “Get back down here.” Funny, yes. And it makes sense on an intellectual level, even–that her default reaction to anything Mitch does is practical and irritated. But along with that, you still need to feel that you are looking at a human being who has just witnessed another human being floating to the goddamn ceiling. That, we don’t get here, whether it’s the fault of DeMornay or the script or both. It’s the sort of scene that I bet will make perfect sense once I read David Milch’s explanation of his thinking on the Inside the Episode guide at HBO. But if you need to explain it, something didn’t work.

For all that, this episode actually made me hope against hope for another season. Whether John is from heaven or outer space or neither, what he is first off is a linguistic puzzle, and in the scene with Linc, it was good to see someone addressing him head-on that way, trying to make sense of his language. Once you understand the syntax of his repetitions (“If my words are yours…”), you can understand John (“…you can hear my father”). So Linc was able to figure out some of John’s nuances: the “end” was near, because John is the end (whatever that turns out to be). Mitch need to get back in “the game,” but Linc needs to get in the game–never having been in in the first place.

Are those answers? Not really. Not hardly. But it was satisfying for me in a way that the series hadn’t been, except for John’s sermon. Because someone was engaging directly with the questions. And had there been some more of this earlier, and less meandering (albeit poetic meeandering), JFC might have a more serious chance at a second season. (I’d say Lost is the same way–it can get away with avoiding answers to the extent it interests you in the questions.) Granted, most of the people in and around the Yost family are not exactly literary scholars like David Milch, and they’re not the types likely to jump in and start deconstructing someone’s language immediately, but I don’t think it would have been too much hand-holding to give the audience some kind of surrogate like this sooner.

The finale also had John flexing his muscles in a way that we hadn’t seen much of earlier — reading minds, taking a role in the parade, etc. The scene with the used car dealer (who first seemed to resist the sale, then started spouting John-isms and made the deal) was puzzling, but in an interesting way. Is he one of John’s cohort? His superior? His “father”? (Notice the familiar way he addressed John, as “Country,” and sternly told him “I took you offline.”) Or is he just another human, whom John is mentally influencing somehow?

JFC has always hinted that John somehow clouds the thoughts of those around them–he sends Kai into a trance, Sean says he doesn’t remember much of “Cincinnati.” Like Angels in America (or, in a less ambitious way, Saving Grace), JFC suggests that the proximity of the divine is intoxicating. The problem is, this has made it hard to tell when characters are under the influence of John, and when they’re simply behaving implausibly.

Maybe there’s no point in Monday-morning quarterbacking now, but in those scenes that worked, there were glimpses of what an amazing series JFC could have been. If critics like me have groused a lot about the show, it’s probably from that sense of having been this close to greatness.

For all that, I’d rather watch this show fail than watch most others succeed. There are a lot of qualities that make a great TV show, but one is what I’d call, for lack of a better word, hauntingness–the quality that makes a show’s lines and scenes come to mind unbidden for days after you watch. JFC had this in spades. Those glorious point-of-view shots of John and Sean surfing back from Cincinnati will stick with me for a long time. The word “Cincinnati” itself has been transformed for me: who knew back when watching WKRP that it could sound like a biblical city in the clouds?

David Milch and company may not have succeeded, but they were trying to do something far more difficult than anything TV usually attempts–where outside of the soap opera Passions has TV ever done out-and-out magic realism?–and something perhaps impossible. Milch was trying to make a series about the ineffable, about what it would be like for a group of humans to encounter a being trying to explain something that was beyond our experience. In doing so, JFC often failed at the simple artistic job of using the figurative to communicate what can’t be expressed literally. In spite of all that, I loved watching them try, and felt lucky that it’s possible for someone like Milch to get 10 hours of TV to take a shot at it.

Watching the events unfold on his computer, Duane summed it up for me: “Technically, there’s no way we can be seeing what we’re seeing.” And yet we did. And somehow I’m glad we had the chance.

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