Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Quest for Blue Velvet

While this summer has seen the return of old shows such as So You Think You Can Dance, American Inventor, Big Love, and Pirate Master (They test all the reality programming now. What can I say?), this summer has also seen a new disturbing trend in programming: the attempts to out-David Lynch David Lynch.

If you are unfamiliar, David Lynch is a filmmaker who is best known for his 1986 cult film Blue Velvet and his infamous ABC television show Twin Peaks, which revolved around FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper's attempts to solve the mystery of who killed town prom queen Laura Palmer. Lynch is known for being decidedly obtuse, abandoning traditional ideas of plot and narrative, and moving his stories at a dreamlike pace. For some, these characteristics are what make Lynch compelling. For others, these aspects make watching Lynch unenjoyable. Regardless of personal opinions, Lynch has changed the perspective that many viewers have taken towards film and television, allowing for more surreality and abstraction in plot.

Lynch's distinct perspective towards storytelling and narrative are being challenged by two new shows that have premiered on television in the last two weeks: John from Cincinnati and Meadowlands.

John from Cincinnati is a new show created by John Nunn and David Milch, a creator of the crime drama NYPD Blue and the controversial western Deadwood. The plot revolves around the Yost family. Father Mitch was a successful surfer until he suffered a knee injury that forced him to retire from professional competition 20 years earlier. Mitch and his wife Cissy had a boy named Butchie who was a phenomenal surfer, but, due to the actions of his manager, he became a heroin junkie who fell out with his family. In family tradition, Butchie had a son named Shaun who is 13 and a fantastic surfer, but the family is in conflict about what to do about his life. Mitch does not want Shawn to fall victim to sharks like Butchie, but Butchie wants Shawn to pursue what makes him happy.

The family is thrown into chaos with the arrival of a mysterious man. This man has no origins, no background. He also has very little verbal ability; he repeats what everyone around him says as well as the same five phrases over and over again. There is a clear switch of reality around the family. This man is magical, but no one is sure how or what his purpose is here. While the show has only been on for two weeks, the question that the show is trying to answer is very clear: Who is John Monad? The best that they know is that he is from Cincinnati, but that is uncertain given his tendency to repeat what people around him say when not repeating his stock phrases like "the end is near".

If this all seems eerily familiar to you, it should. This show pretty much has the same flow and plot as Twin Peaks. Instead of a bleak logging town, John from Cincinnati is takes place in the California border town of Imperial Beach. While the location is different, the plot is the same: a stranger comes into the community, people are uncertain about whether to trust him, and there is a central question that has to be answered. Additionally, the show is just as intentionally weird as Twin Peaks with bizarre neighbors and supernatural occurrences. For example, from time to time, Mitch just floats into the air above the ground for no reason. It will probably be explained in time, but we don't know for now, just like in Twin Peaks. To the show's positive, it is very engaging to watch if not slow from time to time.

The other show battling for the crown for Lynchian absurdity is Meadowlands, a group project between a British production firm and Showtime. This show revolves around the Brogan family made up of Patriarch Danny, Matriarch Evelyn, and twins Zoe and Mark. The Brogans move into a new community called Meadowlands where everything seems ideal. All of the neighbors are happy and friendly, the neighborhood is clean. But, as signaled by some initial flashbacks, the Brogans are hiding something about their own life. The only thing that can be certain is that something that happened in a fire that led to a death. What this something is has not been elucidated.

In addition to the mysterious circumstances of their existence, it also made clear that the Brogans are not the Brogans. The Brogans are, in fact, a different family, one with a very different and sordid past. Additionally, the people who live in the neighborhood are very much not like they seem. There is an inspector in the town who maintains the peace. When Danny told him that he wanted the town handyman to stay away from his daughter, the inspector proceeded to trip the player in a pick up game and kick him with full force in his eye. Danny asks the inspector why he did this; he said to protect the purity of his daughter, just as Danny had wished.

Amongst other strange things, the son Mark, who hasn't spoken for four months, is obsessed with the woman who lives across from him. Mark corners her one day wearing a pair of red gloves, which she says are pretty. Mark then sends her the gloves in an envelope that night and watches from his window as she puts them on and masturbates, baring herself to this mysterious stranger who has decided to take an interest in her. Mark also takes a shining to the woman's daughter Jezebel who has returned from a strange place called Purgatory.

This show reeked of the aspects that made Blue Velvet such a haunting, engaging movie with its placid, suburban ideal infused by an insidious undercurrent of evil and violence. Additionally, the presence of the inspector and the fact that no one leaves the neighborhood is very reminiscent of another challenging British drama: The Prisoner. While no secrets are trying to be discovered, the inspector is the roaming bubble that captured dissenters. Additionally, the fact that people cannot escape Meadowlands is very reminiscent of The Village. For example, when the Brogans arrived, their neighbor already knew their name, a disturbing fact as they had not been on the grounds for more than a minute.

While John from Cincinnati has been on for two weeks, Meadowlands has only been on for one. Both of these shows will be exactly like a Lynch movie. There is no clear idea where either show will go and there are no hints as to anything that will happen, even between episodes.
It will be captivating to see where each show goes from where they are now.

John from Cincinnati airs on Sundays at 9 PM on HBO. Meadowlands airs at 10 PM on Showtime.