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'John Doe' Gets Lost

Who is he, and why am I watching this show?

by Mark D. Johnson
November 1, 2002

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'John Doe' Gets Lost_Mark D. Johnson-Who is he, and why am I watching this show? John Doe
Fridays, 9/8c on Fox

A man wakes up naked and confused on a small, deserted island, and falls off a cliff into the ocean. He is rescued by the Asian crew of a ship bound for Seattle, and surprisingly, the man speaks their language. As he becomes more coherent, he realizes that he knows everything – every factual tidbit known by the human race, that is, except who he is and what happened to him. The man goes by the name John Doe, and that is the set-up to Fox’s new series of the same name.

It’s enough of an intriguing premise to forgive John Doe’s weekly foray into crime-solving with the Seattle police. Television was hardly in need of another crime show, but I have to admit that when the crime-solver knows everything it adds an interesting element to an otherwise tired genre. What other TV sleuth happens to know the ratio to which fingernails grow faster than toenails? Such off-the-cuff trivial knowledge can be amusing, and anyone who has conversed with a freakish know-it-all can relate to the eye-rolling response often seen on the faces of Doe’s acquaintances.

When Doe isn’t solving crime, he’s trying to figure out who he is, and the mystery behind his past is the show’s other strong point. A small piece of the puzzle is revealed to viewers each week, and it’s clear that John Doe owes his present condition to a sinister group operating overseas. There are echoes of the vast series-length conspiracy story arc that overstayed its welcome after the first few seasons of “The X-Files.” “John Doe’s” creators have said that they have all the answers to the questions surrounding Doe, and they would be wise to clue viewers in to a more satisfying degree than the writers of “X-Files” did. Building mystique is great, but there’s a point when teasing becomes cruelty and fascination gives way to frustration. “Doe” would do better to focus more on his mystery, and less on murder mystery.

I’m sorry to say that the more promising aspects of “John Doe” ultimately fail to make up for some serious shortcomings. With only five main characters, there is an apparent lack of complexity and realism surrounding their lives. To be fair, a person in Doe’s situation would not have many friends to call on, but that doesn’t mean the few people he knows have to look like loners as well. They seem to only interact with each other, and they haven't exactly achieved “ensemble” status. There’s Karen, the young art student who has persuaded Doe to hire her as his assistant, Frank, the detective who can’t solve a case without Doe, Jamie, Frank’s boss who is ever so wary of Doe, and Digger, the bartender who hires Doe to play piano. The mere average knowledge these lesser characters possess makes them look dim-witted next to Doe. The lead actor is Australian Dominic Purcell, who gives a rather uneven performance as Doe, but generally manages to convey the character’s comprehensive knowledge and extreme identity crisis.

Artistically, “Doe” does not have a visual flair that distinguishes the better television dramas today, and apart from Doe’s entertaining knowledge-driven powers of deduction, the crime-related storylines are all too routine. Also not helping: overuse of flashy computer programs that don’t exist. Granted, plenty of other shows and movies are guilty of this, including the near-perfect “24,” but it’s unfortunate all the same if the goal is to immerse viewers in a realistic universe.

There’s still a chance this show will find its way, but so far its more irritating aspects overshadow its good core concepts. It's worth a look, however, if your Friday nights seem a little dull. You might learn some new trivia.

Channel Hopping…
  • Speaking of “24,” the season premiere generated the show’s highest ratings ever, with 13.5 million viewers. The story itself got off to quite a bang, giving every reason to believe “24” will ably manage to sustain the intensity and unpredictable nature of its first season. It’s fairly important to catch the first hour of what will likely be a very complicated day, so if you missed it, catch the encore broadcast Monday at 9/8c on Fox, or the weekly repeats on FX on Mondays at 11 pm or Tuesdays at 5/4c pm. The regular time slot is Tuesday at 9/8c.

  • Fox has cancelled David E. Kelley’s latest law drama “girls club” after only two episodes due to abysmal ratings. Audiences somehow failed to take an interest in three sexy female lawyers who live together in San Francisco and discuss law in their underwear. Critics hated it. Has the mighty David E. Kelley lost it? I loved his “Picket Fences,” two-time winner of Best Drama, before it self-destructed during its last season. The “Ally McBeal” craze was over before you could say “dancing baby.” Though I haven’t watched “The Practice,” critics have maligned the direction the show has recently taken. “Boston Public,” while earning points for not being about lawyers, churns out preposterous and overblown plots week after week… Networks should stop giving Kelley shows unless he starts grounding his creations in the real world. We all know he can write a good script. So why doesn’t he do it anymore? And why didn't he capitalize the title of "girls club"? We may never know.

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