POSTED BY STUART LEVINE
I’m man enough to admit I have a guy crush on David Milch. I’ve watched everything he does, and I mean everything. “Hill Street Blues” … watched every episode. Hell, I was a fan of “Bay City Blues.” “Big Apple,” with his good friend Ed O’Neill, was intriguing and smart, but had little chance of succeeding as a midseason replacement where only easy-to-digest series have a chance to thrive.
And as for “NYPD Blue,” I might not have been fanatical about it as much as my friend Alan Sepinwall of the Newark Star-Ledger, who blogged about every episode on his informative “Blue” website, but I was devout. Watched every minute of it. From Caruso’s enthralling first season to Sipowicz’s promotion in the series finale, I was there for every second.
As I write this, I’m staring at my “Deadwood” poster, looking into the steely eyes of Al Swearengen, with Seth Bullock’s hand on his holster and Trixie looking pissed off, in the delicious way only she can. So don’t even get me started on the greatness of “Deadwood.”
Which only adds to my utter disappointment that was “John From Cincinnati.” With all due respect to my Variety colleague and curator of this blog, I think “John” was a monumental misfire, with lessons to be learned all around.
(Pictured above: David Milch, far right, with "John from Cincinnati" stars Luke Perry, left, and Austin Nichols.)
Listen, I have little doubt that Milch may be the most brilliant man ever to step foot on a Hollywood soundstage. I don’t like to throw the term “genius” around, but after attending several speaking engagements in which he appeared, that’s a completely apt description of what he’s got going on upstairs.
Ask him a question about “Blue's” Lt. Fancy and he’ll quote you Walt Whitman, inquire about George Hearst and you’ll get Henry James. But what succeeded so well in “Deadwood” failed miserably in “JFC.” If "Deadwood" scenes needed two to three viewings to fully understand subtext, the dialogue was just incomprehensible here. It was Milch having his own vision — which 99% of the time is great — and a network that didn't step in when it saw the train going off the tracks.
Yet what happens when this brilliance is only understood by the writer, and leaves viewers continually asking, “Huh”? How much can you ultimately ask of an audience, if what the show is trying to say is only comprehensible by a select few?
I’m no Rhodes scholar by any means, but I graduated college and consider myself fairly intelligent, but I’d watch scenes after scene and just shake my head trying to figure out what was going on? Was it me? Was I missing something?
Sure, there were many linear storytelling moments that made complete sense — Shaun getting hurt and nearly dying, Butchie trying to be a good dad and connecting with Kai, Bill Jacks trying to feel like a cop again — but the flowery Shakespearean language that worked so beautifully in the Black Hills felt completely out of place in Imperial Beach.
Issues dealing with God are always difficult to articulate, and Milch (along with co-created Kem Nunn) tried their best to show how the inhabitants of Imperial Beach dealt with spiritual powers and theological dilemmas, but there’s has to be some sort of connection between the characters and the viewers. The audience deserves to know, in so many ways, what makes these characters tick and where the story might be headed.
Speaking to one actor when the series first began, he had absolutely no idea why his character would act the way he did, what the backstory was, where he fit into the big picture of the Yost family and where he went as the season went along.
It’s obvious Milch wanted Cissy to be a real ball-buster, but was all that screeching and over-the-top shrillness really necessary in every episode? Didn’t we get the point after the first couple of hours? Was there no other dimension to Rebecca De Mornay's character beyond yelling and name-calling?
The one positive I take from “JFC” is Brian Van Holt, who I thought was a revelation. He hadn’t caught my eye from anything before but I’ll certainly take notice of him now.
This isn’t meant as an attack on Milch, or any of the actors or creative talent that put together “JFC.” I’d much rather be challenged by a TV show than forced to watch another mind-numbing procedural. I think of “JFC” as more of a missed opportunity from a man I consider to be the smartest guy in the room, and who I always want to be driven to deliver the best. That’s what makes all this so disappointing. And the fact “Deadwood” was cut short because of it only adds to my hurt.
After watching hundreds of hours of Milch TV, I wouldn’t ask him to change a thing on his next project. And I hope, as HBO execs said at TCA, that they want to stay in the David Milch business.
Next time, though, David, just give us a chance to figure out what the hell’s going on. OK?