'John From Cincinnati' to 'Orange Is the New Black': A Journey to becoming 'Enlightened'

journey-playstation.jpgsaturday, 31 august 2013

It's 1:30 in the afternoon, and I'm ascending into heaven.

At least, that's what I think I'm doing. I'm playing "Journey," a downloadable game for the Sony Playstation. It's been out for about a year, but like with most things non-TV related, I'm a latecomer to it. To call it a "game" really doesn't do it service, because it's less about the mechanics and more about the experience. Clocking in at under two hours start to finish, it doesn't have the length of a role-playing game. With only two buttons to use, it eschews the twitch-based game play that marks a first-person shooter or a third-person action game. There's no dialogue, merely visual clues, musical notes, and a looming mountain that you have to approach?

Why? I have no idea. But the mountain beckons. So towards it I will go.

monday, 5 august 2013

It's 9:30 at night, and I'm clutching my pillow tightly.

I'm watching the 11th episode of "Orange Is The New Black," an unlikely candidate for best show of 2013. But as I watch the camera pan over the faces of those I've gotten to know so well within the confines of the show's prison walls. They are reacting to the voice of Piper Chapman's fiance Larry Bloom, who is sharing the supposed stories of those imprisoned alongside his bride-to-be. But by the 11th hour of this show, we understand Piper's first impressions to be false, and by extension our first impressions to be false, and by extension we understand how the secret deployment of an unreliable narrator is the entire point of "Orange"'s overall objection. Larry's words cut like knives, because we the damage they inflict upon someone we all too recently ourselves called "Crazy Eyes". It's the most painful scene of the calendar year, yet not a single drop of blood is shed.

Why? Because we know that not all wounds are seen on the surface. So inwards we go.

laura-dern-enlightened.jpgtuesday, 12 February 2013

It's a wintry day in New England. Stuck at home from my day job due to the latest blizzard, I have my laptop in front of me as I telecommute. But really what I'm doing is binge-watching the first season of "Enlightened," which beams its way into the periphery of my vision before taking it over completely for increasingly long stretches of time. I avoided the show during its first season, and honestly probably wouldn't have checked in at all had I not seen that damn turtle.

That turtle, you see, floats above the night sky during the Season 2 premiere, an image so arrested and so bizarre that it stopped me dead in my tracks as I was channel surfing a few nights earlier. Now that I'm most of the way through season one on this Tuesday afternoon, I understand the reason why the turtle made its startling appearance. But I still don't know what that turtle means. I understand that it's important to Amy Jellicoe, and that she wants others to experience what she did. But there's knowledge and there's understanding, and all I have on this snowy day is knowledge.

Why? Because there's so little that makes sense that making sense of anything often seems pointless. So back to work I go.

sunday, 12 august 2007

It's late Sunday night. And while it's dark where I am, for John and Shaun it's all sun and surf.

I'm watching what turns out to be the series finale of "John From Cincinnati," although I don't know that yet. I'm only a few months inside a world in which I actually get paid to write about television, and while the rest of the world still wants to talk about the end of "The Sopranos" ten weeks earlier, I'm watching Butchie and Kai marvel at the sight before them.

"John" is by most accounts an abject failure, both by those that blame its existence for the cancellation of "Deadwood" and those that watched and couldn't figure out what in the bleeding hell was going. As someone paid to make sense of this show, I too found myself struggling to draw meaning from a stone. But then John delivered what I dubbed the "Sermon On the Snug" in the sixth episode, one of the creepiest, craziest, most beautiful tone poem to friendship, connection, and spirituality ever committed to film. When it was done, I thought I'd been punched in the soul.

Why? Because the line and the circle are huge. Because a veil had been lifted, and light replaced dark. And into the light I wanted to go.

friday,  25 september 1992

It's a cool Fall day, and I've just learned that my younger cousin has died.

This has nothing to do with television, but everything to do with the time in which most of my family decided believing in God seemed quite silly and moved onto other (often more terrible, almost inevitably sadder) things. That acute loss of faith was tempered over time, but rarely fully regained.

A few days later I'll be a pallbearer at his funeral, and none of us will be able to make much sense of it, and to this day, most of us don't. We're far from alone in this. And yet we're all essentially alone.

Why? Because we all think we're the only ones going through it. Which means there's nowhere to go.

austin-nichols-john-from-cincinnati.jpgsunday, 12 august 2007

Fifteen years later Bob Dylan is describing a series of dreams as the camera moves through the clouds at an ever-quickening pace. (Link slightly NSFW.) All the primary players wake from their respective slumbers, but really what they are waking up to is possibility. All throughout the season, the mysterious figure of John has intimated that transcendence starts with the simple act of surfing, caught on camera, and broadcast to the world. It's a ridiculous idea, until you SEE Shaun surf through the lens of this show's camera, through the eyes of Butchie, through the words of Dylan. It's all right there. Everything's huge. Everything's right. Everything feels so big the screen itself might burst.

The next day, HBO cancelled the show. But the moment still sits in my gut, unwilling to budge, casually reminding me every once in a while in my more despairing moments that this thing happened. It's a moment in which everything works, and in which everything seems possible.

tuesday, 12 February 2013

Levi is in Hawaii, and he's looking for the turtle.

I've blown through the entire first season, and now into its then yet-uncompleted season installment. This, too, will be cancelled shortly by HBO, but for now, Levi is looking for the turtle that Amy saw when she stayed at the same holistic treatment facility. He never finds it, but believes in his heart of hearts two things. The first? That Amy indeed see that turtle. The second? That he desperately wants to see the turtle himself.

The turtle itself is, of course, irrelevant and unimportant. But the act of looking for the turtle is all that really is important in the world of "Enlightened" and by extension our own. One cannot see the turtle until one believes in the turtle in the first place. The turtle floats above Abaddonn Industries in that second season premiere because it's always and ever there. But too many of us are looking at spreadsheets, gridlock, and the faded pictures of former supposed glories to notice. The circle and the line are huge. But the turtle is total. We sit upon its back when we're not crushing its spine. The path to seeing the turtle is slow. The work to see the turtle rarely stops. We encase the turtle in concrete and call it progress. We cut ourselves off from it, and by extension, from each other.

taylor-schilling-uzo-aduba-orange-is-the-new-black.jpgmonday, 5 august 2013

The concrete walls that cut Piper, Alex, Miss Claudette, Taystee, and others from the rest of society are an unlikely place to find reaffirmation. But that's just one of the many tricks that "Orange Is The New Black" pulled off in its first season. We've had our fill of male antiheroes blurring the line between right and wrong. And that's fine and good but also beaten into the ground. We understand all to well the evil that men do. We need to see the good all are capable of doing. Dramatizing that isn't as sexy and depicting the more corrosive sides of the soul. But it's also far easier to fill a show with people threatening the lives of others rather than depicting how hard it can be to simply lend someone else a hand.

It's not just that male antiheroes have been the go-to building block for "quality" drama for a decade and a half. It's that the weighty topics these shows have explored have weighed us all down to the point where seeing quality in anything remotely uplifting is neigh impossible. The optimism of a show like "Parks and Recreation" feels downright revolutionary, but it only feels that way when placed in contrast with its contemporary television brethren. "Orange" has plenty of violence on its periphery, but that's only one, occasional facet to its overall presentation. The joy it allows to flourish in prison, a most unlikely of places, is a model other shows would do well to emulate. And it's a model we as viewers would do well to bring into our everyday lives.

saturday, 31 august 2013

I'm on the mountain, near the top. At the outset of my trek, a companion appeared. I do not know who this person was. "Journey" doesn't let you speak to anyone in the game, save via a single button that emits a note. The two of us tackle the path together, often relying on each other to gain enough speed and distance to traverse the various landscapes between us and the mountain. The longer I hold down the button, the more resonant the notes are. I don't know what this person is trying to say, but I understand everything this person wants to achieve.

But in the end, as I enter the light that has provided a game-long beacon, I am alone. I'm not sure where my companion went. Even meeting this person at all was happenstance, a combination of various permutations that might just have easily led me to play the game by myself. And to be sure, you can finish "Journey" that way. But I can't imagine it would be as rich an experience compared with how I worked my way through vast deserts, huge caves, and steep cliff faces. At one point, over the course of a mere thirty seconds, I soared seemingly miles into the air, soaring higher and higher, chaining together a string of forgiving button presses that allowed me to take this one leap in a single attempt. I found myself saying aloud, "Please, don't let this end. I want to see the top." Two seemingly contradictory statements, but they made perfect sense in the moment.

Soon enough, and far too soon at that, I was there.

The line and the circle drew the path.

The turtle hid inside the mountain, waiting for me to arrive.

A helping hand made sure I didn't get lost along the way.

The journey is all there is, and all I want.

Photo/Video credit: TGC, HBO, Netflix
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