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John Doe is an intelligent adventure series, named after the main character, albeit not by name: 'John Doe' is called thus because nobody knows the name of the man who literally fell from the sky, naked, in the sea near an obscure island. When Cambodian fishermen save him, it soon becomes clear his memory is in a paradoxical state: he has total amnesia concerning his own past, even his real name, but has more factual knowledge stored in his brain then even the Google computer banks on every possible other subject, as if he had memorized the Library of Congress, so one rarely needs to read anything when he's around. He also is intelligent and inquisitive enough to understand and use much of that knowledge, and keeps rolling into all kinds of weird mysteries, teaming up with various characters, each of which must first be convinced he's legit, such as police detectives Frank Hayes and Jamie Avery, but gets frustrated by finding his own story the most elusive, probably linked to some ... Written by
I went into 'John Doe' skeptically. This was, after all, the year after some of the finest shows of the new millennium had lost their heads on the chopping block under the Gail Berman regime over at Fox. So it goes without saying, and it went without saying from minute one of this show, that it was going to be canceled before it's time. This is the Fox network where talking about, after all. As the sun rises and sets so does Fox pull out a great or if not that an extremely promising show before its time. When it's all said and done I would put 'John Doe' firmly in the latter category.
The surrounds an enigma, about a man (Dominic Purcell) who awakens with all the encyclopedic facts of the universe but lacks any memory of his own identity. It sounds a little formula and hockey but stick with it. Despite my skepticism it managed to hook me in the very first episode. After a summer of seeing the over-dramatic scene of nothing more than Doe waking up nude on an island in all of the Fox promos the lighter, more breezy nature of the opening was a good sign. Instead of Doe muddling around trying to find himself the pilot script jump right into reality, having Doe do exactly what anyone would - use his new found knowledge to enrich himself. Soon enough he's got a hot car and a nice apartment on his ability to pick horses at the track. He can do so much that he becomes bored with this life and soon finds himself trying to help others by helping the police solve the usual TV 'unsolvable crime'. It all follows a pretty linear cause-and-effect plot, which is why I feel myself forgiving the show for the more formulaic show it often became. Essentially it became another 'MacGyver' in which Doe uses household items like paper-clips and dish-washing liquid to scientifically get himself out of one absurd jam after another. However, it's jams where pretty good. Such as when Doe tussled with a killer on an airplane or tracked down a Jack the Ripper copycat. Although, the endings are often a cop-out in the usual TV way. The best, by far where the 2 episodes in which Doe went up against his doppelganger - a psychotic serial killer who had the same abilities and would put Doe up to tasks like defusing a bomb before the traffic light turns red.
In that way, and in the way the series is based on a larger premise but takes time away from it - breaking the momentum if you will - to focus on a self contained mystery, 'John Doe' recalled 'the X-Files'. With that show now retired, Fox would have been better advised to keep his one around and see what it could do. It was different but similar enough to make a run at it. This show also calls back to 'The Pretender' and numerous other recent crime dramas where a genius solves the unsolvable cases. The difference here is in the execution. I actually think 'John Doe' is better than most of the shows it recalls. As I said, not only does the premise make the crime elements seem logical, but it also works due to it's crisp direction - often from movie director Mimi Leder. What makes the show fly most of all is the charming lead performance of Purcell. His take on Doe is one of a man without a past or a personality and Purcell strikes that cord, but also keeps him lively, colorful and away from being the face-less wooden hero Doe could have easily been.
While some of the self-contained stories (all of which felt very much like the writers satisfying a network requirement) seemed to grow tired before the hour was up, the driving mystery of the series was a compelling and original one. What where the nature of Doe's powers? What was the Phoenix group? All mysteries that remain unanswered as the series was canceled. The show had a knack for keeping us on the edge of our seat, answering questions only to pose more in an ending twist. And the best shock of them all came in the final second of the series. Hey, if it had to go at least 'John Doe' went out with a bang. You've got to give it that.
* * * / 4
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