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Life After Tony: Surfers, polygamists, and folkies

There has been some buzz about disgruntled fans of The Sopranos canceling their HBO subscriptions as a way of registering their displeasure with the now-infamous cut-to-black conclusion on Sunday. (I could go on and on about how wrong these people are, but I mostly buried that hatchet elsewhere.) It’s a threat that makes no sense, because The Sopranos isn’t going to be on the air any longer anyway and HBO probably won’t be handing out retroactive refunds for all the time viewers ultimately regret they spent caring about the show. And if you’re the sort who only subscribed to HBO to watch The Sopranos unfold ever-so-slowly since 1999, you’ve just spent $1000 for that privilege and many hundreds more if you want to hold onto those memories on DVD.

So basically, I’m not buying the argument that people are fleeing HBO because of this one show; they’re fleeing because they’re worried that the network’s halcyon days of Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Rome, Sex And The City, Da Ali G Show, et al. have come to an end. Sure, The Wire has one more glorious season left (though its brilliance hasn’t exactly yielded a ratings bonanza) and Entourage continues to sputter along through the summer, with quantity over quality. But there’s little doubt the network is facing a crisis, at least in the short term. Personally, I have faith that HBO’s commitment to adventurous programming with pay off again in the future, but how will it get through the summer? With that in mind, I watched the first episode of three shows expected to carry the load:

John From Cincinnati: The timing for this show’s premiere could not have been worse. Having The Sopranos’ finale as a lead-in means lots of potential viewers, but whether you loved the finale or hated it, you needed more than a few minutes to process the perplexing last moments of the most heralded drama in TV history. Personally, I couldn’t bring myself to watch it until a couple days after The Sopranos ended; even then, sorting through its many idiosyncrasies continues to be a maddening experience. From what I can tell, the sharply divided (and mostly negative) critical reaction falls into two camps: Confused but intrigued enough to press on, or confused and resentful toward co-creator David Milch and HBO for canceling Deadwood in order to devote their energies toward a deliberately obscure, badly paced, and high-toned show about… well… something to do with surfers and a dude with magic pockets who may or may not be Jesus Christ and a hero who can levitate and a parrot with healing powers and Luke Perry for some reason…

Believe it or not, I’m tentatively aligning myself with the “confused but intrigued” camp, simply because I can’t believe a show so perversely off-putting and strange has found its way to television. What HBO has done with Milch reminds me a little of how studios used to pamper auteurs like Michael Cimino back in the ‘70s: “Hey, the guy made The Deer Hunter. Why not stake the future of United Artists on his crazily self-indulgent follow-up feature?” As others have noted, John From Cincinnati may be the oddest show of its kind to appear in primetime since Twin Peaks’ heyday, and for that reason alone, it’s worth watching for at least a few more episodes. The elements for a good show (and possibly a great one) are in place: The Imperial Beach setting, in deepest Southern California, has the arid, purgatorial feel of Deadwood; the tale of three generations of surfing talent is inherently dramatic and the surfing footage itself is exciting; and save for the two youngest members of the Yost clan (a junkie burnout played by Brian Van Holt and a talented prodigy played by Greyson Fletcher, both of whom are awful in the first episode), the cast is loaded with talent, including Bruce Greenwood, a still-smokin’ Rebecca De Mornay, an amusingly profane Ed O’Neill, character-actor extraordinaire Luis Guzmán, and Perry, who’s aged into a pretty enigmatic screen presence.

My worry with John From Cincinnati is that there’s no master plan that’s going to bring all these elements together. Are Milch and co-creator Kern Nunn showing patience by starting the show in the weeds and chipping out later on? Or is this a series that’s committed to frustrating any attempt to make sense of it? The jury’s still out, but I’m seriously worried the latter is the case.

Big Love: The second season of this show kicked off on Monday night, and there’s still no question it fits squarely into the HBO template in a way John From Cincinnati never will. Much like Six Feet Under specifically, it’s provocative, at least on its face, following a family that’s trying to reconcile its old-school polygamist lifestyle with the new-school secularity of a Salt Lake City suburb. Earlier this year, our own Donna Bowman registered her appreciation of the first-season DVD. Here’s a key sentence from her review:

“The series makes a powerful case that fundamentalism of any stripe exists in an uneasy truce with the civil and economic religion of American mass culture.”

To me, if the writers of Big Love could read that sentence a few times before they put ink to paper, it’d be a much better show. As is, it’s always kept me at arm’s length, because I’ve never felt it’s serious enough about the powerful forces tugging at this family, and just how egregiously compromised they are in taking their polygamous arrangement off the compound and trying to make it work in the land of Applebee’s and SUVs. At its best, the show gets at the petty jealousies and power plays endemic to a single marriage shared by three strong-willed women; the bedroom hijinks of the first few episodes alone had the quality of a good screwball comedy. And yet, it never engages these problems seriously: There’s plenty of juicy melodrama, to be sure, but never the urgency that this lifestyle may fatally compromise the faith of these family members. More often than not, the threat comes from the outside instead of from within, which means the family’s more worried about being exposed for who they are rather than reexamining (or even affirming) who they are.

The second season picks up in the aftermath of the family getting exposed at the governor’s mansion, where Bill Paxton’s first wife (Jeanne Tripplehorn) had come for a Mother Of The Year ceremony. Her being potentially honored with this award was one of the more intriguing developments of the first season, because she not only risked exposure for the family, but she was fundamentally denying the real, extended family of which she was a part. The first episode of Season Two would seem like a great opportunity to observe how the family reformulates in the face of this crisis, but it’s all about finding out who exposed them, which is far less interesting to me. And I still couldn’t be less interested in the goings-on at the compound lorded over by “prophet” Harry Dean Stanton, which isn’t Stanton’s fault (he’s a favorite actor of mine), but that storyline has never really amounted to more than a one-dimensional threat to the family’s livelihood.

Am I alone in being left cold by this show? It’s been engaging enough to keep me watching, but I keep waiting for the day that it leaves a stronger impression. Will I be waiting forever?

Flight Of The Conchords: This show shouldn’t work as beautifully as it does. Who’d have thought that after those early Tenacious D shorts, HBO would have room another thin comedy built around a duo of jokey acoustic-folk parodists? And yet, the first episode of Flight Of The Conchords—available here for free sampling before its debut on Sunday—could hardly be more winning and funny. Billing themselves as New Zealand’s “fourth most popular digi-folk duo,” the Conchords are Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement; the premise has them trying to make headway in the New York scene. As they wait for their big break, they share a tiny one-room apartment with twin beds, build upon their one devoted fan (or “fan base,” as she’s called), and rely on an agent of Stephen-Merchant-in-Extras-level inepititude to get them gigs. There’s precious little going on in the first episode—Clement tries to date his bandmate’s ex-girlfriend, the two shoot a cellphone-camera video in robot costumes, and, um, that’s about it—but it’s enough material for three hilarious songs (two about the girl, one about the robots) and lots of a self-deprecating humor. It’s far too slight to carry a network in desperate need of a substantial hit, but as a palette-cleanser, it certainly beats the hell out of Entourage these days.