Resurrection, revelation, reception
Rescuing John From Cincinnati from the HBO narrative
in Substance / style
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This chapter explores the historical contingencies of television style by revisiting David Milch’s much-maligned ‘surf noir’ drama John From Cincinnati (HBO, 2007). Cancelled after a single series, Milch’s enigmatic follow-up to Deadwood (HBO, 2004–6) was widely charged by critics with proffering ‘empty’ style over substance; deemed an aesthetic as well as commercial failure, having been scheduled in HBO’s flagship Sunday night slot following the finale of The Sopranos (HBO, 1999–2007). Applying the series’ own concept of the ‘halo effect’ to examine its critical reception in both the US and the UK, the chapter explores the degree to which damning assessments of John’s stylistic choices can be viewed as being shaped and fixed by the contextual narratives surrounding the programme at its initial moment of transmission. Engaging with disciplinary debates around television aesthetics, the chapter considers the relative lack of diachronic reappraisals of television texts as compared to other art forms. Discussing the merits and pitfalls of mobilising scholars’ own ‘felt responses’ (as well as auteurist approaches) in the process of re-evaluating television texts as aesthetic objects, it ultimately calls for more sustained attention to the conditions under which any TV drama considered a ‘failure’ in its historical moment might be granted (or denied) a ‘second life’. What emerges is a continuing sense of television as an ephemeral or ‘time-tied’ medium (Ellis, 2007), even in a post-broadcast, on-demand age of apparent abundance.

Substance / style

Moments in television

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