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Cancellation for John From Cincinnati – The End is Here

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I was expecting it to happen, but it was still sad to see that John From Cincinnati has not been asked back for a second season. This may actually be the first HBO drama to not get a second year, and considering how fast this choice follows the finale, it doesn’t seem like HBO was laboring over the decision. I felt like the show was gone after the initial critical savage and the weak ratings for the premiere. HBO relies on a critical chorus to make their shows into something that people have to watch. In the absence of that, people didn’t have any reason to check the show out.

There’s a wide variety of reasons for the show’s failure to get a larger following, but ultimately, it all goes back to The Sopranos’ final moments. At 9:58 on June 10, Tony looked up, a screen went to black, and that show was over. People were furious, claiming that somehow they were “owed” an explanation, a “real” conclusion to the story. They apparently didn’t look at the rest of the episode, which resolved all the narrative issues of the season, as well as the lingering tension between Tony and Junior. No, life goes on wasn’t enough, they needed to hear exactly what happened.

I was wiped after the last Sopranos, and didn’t actually watch the John debut then, and I don’t think I’d have reacted well had I watched it immediately after the enigmatic final moments of The Sopranos. But, after a break, I saw episode one and enjoyed it. I never felt the show was anywhere near as impenetrable as people claimed it to be. There was weird stuff, but there were character and narrative hooks to keep you going through that. Not everything should be explained in the first episode of a show, and not everyone’s purpose need be immediately clear.

But, throughout the show’s life, I’ve read lots of viewer commentary online where people ask for answers and wonder if everything will eventually be revealed. Considering the way executive producer David Milch works, there’s not likely a master narrative plan in place, rather it’s a series of ideas that are developed through the characters. If you understand the central ideas he’s exploring, it’s not that tough to contextualize the “random” events of the show. Even when there’s not a clear narrative drive, the formation of community formed the backbone of the series and gave a thematic lens through which we could understand everything that happened.

Who is John, where did he come from, and why is he here? Milch is only really interested in one question, the why. What does knowing exactly where John comes from tell you that you don’t already know about the show? He’s from some higher plane with a mission for us. That’s what matters, and I think that’s plenty to understand the show by.

But, I’ll admit that it’s a show that takes work. If you’re not willing to think about what you’re seeing and bring parts of yourself to the show, it’s not going to work. I love works that leave room for the viewer’s input. Hollywood filmmaking is all about tying up loose ends and leaving you with a perfect little box. This show is a mess at times, but it’s a mess you can get lost in, become a part of. Much like Grant Morrison’s work, the show needs you to fully realize it. It’s a starting point for the viewer to work from. We are like Dwayne and Jerri in the final episode, watching these events on a monitor, but also involved in them in some way. That’s the beauty of television, the way a world can emerge over time.

I’m probably going to go back and do a larger thematic wrap-up, but for now, here are some resources that provide interesting reading on the series. Probably the most important is this interview with David Milch, conducted yesterday. He talks a lot about the show, the themes underlying it, and the process he used to make it. It helped me fill in some gaps, and certainly gives a context for what we see on screen. But, this isn’t a case of us needing the explanation to understand the show, it’s all there if you look for it.

He says something really important here: “Whether we choose to or not is up to us, and so why surfers? Surfers are because my show Deadwood was canceled, inexplicably to me. The suggestion was made to me, why don't you do a show about surfers? Young, masculine, that's the demographic. Can you do that and have it engage your own spirit? John From Cincinnati.”

So many people were mad at the show for “replacing” Deadwood. Once and for all, this makes it clear that Deadwood was canceled, it was stopped without his consent, and his choice was either make JFC or make nothing. The thing that baffles me is why HBO continually blurs the line here. I suspect their goal was to make the cancellation of Deadwood easier, by focusing on how Milch was moving onto other projects, but this backfired by alienating much of the Deadwood fanbase.

Their recent comment that the Deadwood movies and a second season of JFC was an either/or proposition was another huge PR mistake. If they really wanted to help the show, they should have said that great ratings for JFC would be the best way to get the Deadwood movies made, even if it was a lie. I get the feeling HBO’s current management had little love for JFC, and just wanted it to go away.

So, to everyone who keeps bitching about Deadwood’s cancellation and blaming JFC for it, that’s not the case. And, I’d argue that JFC is a far better show. It’s much more unconventional and intellectually challenging. I dug Deadwood, but JFC was working on a different level from practically everything else to ever air on TV.

Another great link to check out is the Inside the Episode feature over at HBO's website. They give a lot of insight into Milch’s process, and provide transcripts of crucial scenes, like John’s speech.

To me, the show was a huge success, and I would have loved to see more, but I think it ended in a good place. I see this as the end of John’s initial mission, to save the Yosts. In the process, he created an army around him, people who will spread his message. That group that grew over the course of the series will go on to influence others and his change will gradually infect everyone’s mind. One could argue that the show has done the same thing, got these ideas out there where they can influence people, and now it’s up to us to keep pushing them. First step – does anyone know where I can get one of those Stinkweed shirts?

More to Come! A more analytical look at the series is in the works and will be up later this week, and thanks so much for all the positive comments, it's great to know there are other people out there who like the show and are engaging with it in the same way I am.

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About Patrick

  • Jim

    You are a lazy writer. Why not do a LITTLE Homework:

    1. The PBS interview was on 8/9/07 not ‘yesterday’ or 8/14.

    2. The idea that Milch(or anyone in the business) doesn’t know the story of why Deadwood didn’t come back is ludicrous. Milch,HBO, and everyone else knows that HBO told him to trim production costs and he told them to shove it – so they said ‘we pass’.

  • JoeC

    Unlike the previous commenter, I appreciate the time and effort you put into your blog and John From Cincinnati. I agree with much of what you said – I didn’t feel JFC was nearly as unapproachable and incomprehensible as the general critical and public opinion proclaimed. I see the cancellation as another step HBO is taking, perhaps unwittingly, to morph into traditional network tv programming.

  • Eugene

    I just found this series unbearable — and I tried like heck to get into it.

    I felt sorry for Rebecca De Mornay. Her character has to be the most annoying character in television history.

    I don’t know, I just really hated this show.

  • John (Real name, I promise)

    I’m actually shocked that the cancellation of this show angers me as much as it does. My wife and I spent half of yesterday blogging and visiting websites, signing online petitions….etc……

    Going to really miss the hell out of the show. We needed a show like this.


  • Der Slib

    De gustibus non est disputandum and all, but the idea that the indecipherable mess that was “John” was in any way superior to Deadwood is laughable.
    If you want to bring an audience along with you on your metaphysical journey, taking the extra time to try to make the trip understandable would seem to be a good idea. Otherwise, you’re just having a wank.

  • handyguy

    The fact that JFC is so mysterious is exactly the reason many of us love it. 2001, Blow-Up, Persona, Mulholland Drive, and the last episode of the Sopranos have all been loved and hated for similar reasons. If you need someone to “make the trip understandable,” you simply got on board the wrong train. Or surfboard.

  • Mary K. Williams

    Comment #1

    You are a rude(insert “P” word here)!

    You’re going to hang a man out to dry because the interview originally aired on the 9th? Sure it’s an error, but no need to be nasty. Oh please —

    Seems like your distaste is with Milch rather than the author of these fine JFC wrap-ups. So, be a sport and direct your displeasure elsewhere.

    So, anyone know where we can get a gazillion surfboards to ship to HBO headquarters?

  • Jim

    You miss the point- he is LAZY.Typical of writers these days.They don’t watch, look, verify. He doesn’t dig into the real story of the Deadwood cancellation. Simply takes the word of 1 side from an interview (and yes he screwed up on the date but it is right there to see). I don’t trust lazy writers.

  • Mary K. Williams

    Well, I left a previous comment, but BC is being all flukey and the comment vanished.

    Jim – I have to disagree. Really – is it SO bad that the author took something at face value? Sure, there’s alway more than one side, but how far do we dig? To what end? I could see if this were a piece on Deadwood – but it’s not.

    It’d have been much more sporting to contact the author and inform him you have more info, as an FYI – rather to accuse him of being lazy here.

  • Patrick

    Jim, this wasn’t about the story behind the Deadwood cancellation, and how does “everyone know” that Milch’s refusal to cut the budget is what got the show cancelled, particularly when he comes right out here and says that the show was “inexplicably cancelled.” That leads me to believe he wasn’t the one who had agency in the decision. But, my point here is also that the show will benefit from the passage of time, and the healing of pain from the Deadwood cancellation. Your posts are a perfect example of the raw feelings I’m talking about, and I can definitely understand that pain. But, as JFC so wonderfully demonstrates, don’t let past pain get in the way of a good future.

    And sorry about the date mistake, that was just a slip on my part.

  • Patrick

    Der Slib (#5), what is it exactly that was so indecipherable? Post any questions you’ve got here, and I’ll help you work through them. No, the show doesn’t spell things out for you, you’ve got to do a little work to figure things out, but I love that. The show itself is a wonderful moment by moment experience, then there’s the added fun of dissecting what happened and trying to understand the meaning of what we’ve seen. Due to Milch’s process, the meaning is not necessarily in the authorial intent, he is just an agent through which the story tells itself, the story has its own agency and power.

  • Linda

    For anyone who cares – here are some posts from the HBO board about where the show was headed. The poster worked on the show:

    According to David, 9-11-14 deals with a story line in which there was going to be a attempt of a genocide against the Muslims. “Those towel heads are going to get themselves eradicated.” The whole purpose of John’s visit was to create an “army” to prevent this from happening.

    Cissy is the glue of a family that no matter how fucked up it gets, she protects it and keeps it together. She would be the glue that holds the purpose, the army of those against the genocide together.

    Cass is the visionary who is also the media to get the word out that danger is lurking.

    Mitch was the spokesman (PSA’s) who would do the talking, there by getting back into the game.
    Linc is the corporation and money who the world would take seriously and listen to. He is the spin doctor.

    Barry, Ramon and Dickstein are the three wise men, brought together at the Snug Harbor, a scruffy dirty place sort of like a barn were a young Jesus now lives.

    Shaun is a Jesus.

    Freddy and Palaka are warriors to do battle against the enemy.

    Bill is the law, and a General.

    Doc, well, he’s the doctor who initially was going to help the poor from latiin America. Joe was going to smuggle them into the country for Doc to work on. There was once a whole story point about the Doc helping children with hairlip malformations.

    tid bit: During the “parade” there was a man on the side walk who told Tina that he would beat off to her movies. That was an incarnate of Mr. Rollins. When John started talking back to him, berating him, Mr. Rollins was suppose to turn into a pile of dust. Digitally of course.

    Also Milch explains the final Mother of God line.

  • Andy Marsh

    Maybe people aren’t watching this new series from HBO because, like me, they’re tired of them never finishing what they start…Deadwood…6 Feet Under…Carnivale…where the hell are they? And as far as the Sopranos go..why even bother to have a final episode if it’s gonna be that lame?

    I stopped reading Stephen King for the same reason. He started a series…the Darktower…and it took him more than 15 years to finish it!

  • kelsey

    HBO has wrapped up a few shows the right way. 6 Feet Under had a final episode as well as Sex In The City and The Sopranos. Ones we were left hanging on to include Deadwood, Carnivale, Rome?, Lucky Louie, and does anyone know the fate of Flight of the Conchords?
    6 Feet Under, Sex In The City and The Sopranos were ended as they should have been. There is no point in sticking around until everyone hates you. These shows left on a good note.

  • Dave Nalle

    I watched every episode, and I liked it mainly because of the excellent cast. The plot had some holes and was a bit frustrating, but intriguing at the same time.

    I can see why it was cancelled. It was too ambiguous for a lot of viewers. Based on what I’ve read here I’d believe the theory that Milch made it just to piss of executives.

    As far as HBO cancellations, their axing of Rome, Carnivale and Deadwood seem far, far stupider. How they can cancel three shows which are better than anything on network TV within a year is beyond me.

    What will the moron executives do next, cancel Entourage?


  • Savannah

    Thanks for a good commentary on the show. Forget about the “haters”.

  • Patrick

    Rome wasn’t cancelled, it was always meant to end after season two. But, I’d agree, between Deadwood, Carnivale and this, they’ve got quite the itchy trigger finger. I’m hoping that the failure of JFC to catch on with viewers isn’t going to prompt them to move further away from experimental stuff, like Miramax did in the 90s, shifting from foreign and real indie films to just bloated studio style movies.

  • Dave Nalle

    They may be saying that Rome was supposed to end after two seasons, but it’s bollocks. They set up the Jewish characters in the second season with the clear intention of moving some of the third season action to Judea during the reign of Augustus so we could see the glory and excess of Rome as it became a real empire, plus we could see the emergence of Christianity. Without that future development there was no point at all for having the Judean Jew subplot introduced.

    From what I’ve read there was the intention to do a third season, but HBO backed out because of the cost after the very expensive Rome set burnt down.


  • STM

    Geez Dave, are you up late, or really bloody early?? Or are you in some foreign clime, possibly, which could explain the ungodly hour?

    Please explain, old boy … (nice use of the term bollocks BTW – love it)

  • melly

    JFC was cancelled because IT SUCKED!!! Plain and simple,same as Deadwood.The creator of both SHOULD quit his day job!!!

  • Patrick

    I haven’t actually seen the second season of Rome, but before it even started, they had stated it would only be a two year show. Now, it’s unclear whether that was the plan from the very beginning, or the huge expense of the show prevented them from making more seasons at a cost effective level. Either way, it’s not the same kind of cancellation as JFC or Deadwood.

  • conor

    i loved this show and was so sad to see it leave. i was so looking forward to next season because you know things were going to start to unravel

  • Chris

    I thoroughly enjoyed this show and am also sorry to hear it was not picked up. There was phenomenal character development (which is why it took a while to pick up) and it was entirely different from anything on TV. Ed O’neal was terrific, especially when he would freak out and continue to say “Jesus Christ…Jesus Christ.” Also the dynamic between that dysfunctional family was so much fun to watch. (As it was not my own)

    In the end, it all comes down to personal preference; if you like programs involving supernatural elements, great lines, terrific writing and a disconnection from real world in programming, this show was for you. But again, everyone is entitled to his or her opinion.

  • Cheryl

    Some things I know…….and what I know….was this show was so much fun to watch. There hasn’t been a show like it and I am beginning to wonder what the hell HBO is thinking. Are they really going to base their decision on a summer audience???? Annnnnd, as far as comparing it to other shows….well, there is no comparison. Carnivale was another wonderful fun/dark show and they yanked it after two seasons. Does every show have to be like The Sopranos. It lost so much along the journey. I feel we were cheated because our journey with John was cut so short. I will miss it terribly. There is now a vote going on, on the HBO site to vote for your favorite summer show. Everyone out there, click on and click JFC. Maybe, just maybe, HBO will let it ride the wave at least another season.

  • barbara kenerly

    So sad that HBO did not renew JFC..I work in a law office and all of our staff watched and discussed it through the week..not one of us had the same take on the show which proves how great it was..we put ouselves in each character and went with is a thinking person show and we are sad that HBO followed the herd on this one, people that want to be entertained without thinking. Please bring it back..I think if more people like me had e-mailed maybe it would have been picked up for a 2nd season.

  • Think tank

    Very interesting retrospective. I do think that JFC could have stood alone if Milch did not insist on reanimating his Deadwood actors in the surfer noir. That’s what was truly confusing. If thy had allowed the show to stand alone — sorta like the real life “John of God” but with the excellent background of surfing and it’s stars, it would have been great. I think Milch’s inability to let go of Deadwood and the fact that he said as much caused everyone else (the viewers) to be impatient with this unusual piece. It had promise, but needed more time for development and fresh actors to grow the already great nucleus, rather than revamping the Deadwood crew.