BET+’s new dark comedy thriller John with the cap may or may not be better than Netflix’s Ozark – I never loved Ozarkbut maybe you did and so be it – but the gulf between the two shows isn’t as wide as the inevitable gap in coverage seems to suggest.
John with the cap And Ozark are both highly derivative bits of violent, ethically twisted pulp somewhat distinctive for their regional specificity, annoyingly faded cinematography, and sitcom crafty leading men who suppress their natural timing to play a tame everyman.
John with the cap
It comes down to
Has the potential to become the ‘Ozark’ of BET+.
While it’s not yet realizing aspirations that could be generously described as Jim Thompson-meets-August Wilson – that’s a show I’d love to watch – John with the cap has the sense of a potential escape from BET+, though it’s impossible to know what a “breakaway from BET+” would mean in this landscape.
It’s an easily digestible genre offering that wouldn’t look completely out of place on an FX or Netflix, plus the ensemble is really solid, especially Malcolm Barrett and Cynthia Kaye McWilliams. I’m not saying John with the cap is destined to become an Emmy player Ozark — Ozark probably shouldn’t have been such an Emmy player Ozark. But viewers who liked it Ozark would probably like John with the capand this is probably the first time the public has heard that the show exists.
Deon Cole, so fantastic over the years Blackishplays Joe Washington, a Pittsburgh plumber who recently lost his father. Joe thinks he knew his father – struggling small business owner, demanding parent, devoted Steelers fan – until he learns that his father was a mule for a Russian crime syndicate and that he is absconding with millions of dollars and a Lamborghini that belonged to a terrifying pivotal figure ( Pasha Lychnikoff).
This puts Joe and his family – wife Angela (Tammy Townsend) and daughter Jennifer (Ashley Olivia Fisher) – in the crosshairs of some dangerous individuals, but it offers hope: Angela has medical bills, Jennifer a private college education and Joe dreams of going to college. break free from his annoying boss. Ten million dollars (and a Lamborghini) can really come in handy.
Of course, $10 million could also be useful to Joe’s circle of friends, including Leon (Barrett), who is about to lose his hardware store and possibly his wife Cathy (McWilliams); and local police officer Benjamin “Touch” Tuchawuski (Michael Trucco), a drug addict. None of their lives turn out the way they hoped, but are they desperate enough to put those lives at risk for $10 million? Is there strength in numbers when it comes to ousting the Russian mafia or does “more people” just mean more human weakness to deal with?
There are elements of that Treasure of the Sierra Madre/A simple plan vein of hardboiled wish-fulfillment story John with the cap, where ordinary people exposed to extraordinary wealth inevitably fall victim to greed and whatever. But there’s an important difference here: No one has the $10 million or the Lamborghini.
Yes, they can follow a series of possible clues, starting with an unmarked key left by Joe’s father, or they can simply return to their low profile life. But as soon as they start digging, the number of corpses immediately starts to pile up. And once they’re in, there’s no turning back, even if there’s no money. Yet.
although John with the cap is less overtly comedic than a show like NBC’s Good girlsanother regionally specific survey of everyday people pushed into a life of crime by an economic downturn, creator Robb Cullen (Happy) and subsequent writers have a good sense of the absurdity of the situation and its extremes. The characters haven’t reached the point of despair yet, but they’re desperately curious and when they get caught in quicksand, the show begins to race on.
I think there is a version of it John with the cap in which the symbolic side of that quicksand – the suppression of the healthcare system, the rise of the opioid epidemic, the challenges of upward mobility from working-class conditions – could be dealt with more directly and in depth. It’s all there in a general sense and not every show needs to be as declarative in its messages as I am a Virgo. Plus, John with the cap is not entirely without criticism, especially Leon’s resentment of large hardware store chains and various jokes about a white cop who is part of this circle of friends.
It is a dark world and if you are not aware of its darkness, John with the cap was shot with a bleached-out color scheme and underexposed interiors that reflect one’s mental image of Pittsburgh, more than an attempt, as the cliché goes, to really make Pittsburgh into a character. It could be that making a generic version of the Russian Mafia the show’s main adversary is a breakout, plot device rather than thematic device that could give the show additional power.
Instead of thematic potency, there is a visceral potency that comes from the heightened conditions. It’s just a familiar visceral force of too many similar crime dramas as the series goes through beats like obligatory torture scenes and even more obligatory body-disposal drama, but at least both are delivered with effective dark humor.
More sophistication could have helped with other well-known genre elements, whether it’s the gruff teen whose refusal to act with any common sense drives too much of the story – “Dana Brody Syndrome”, for example Native country fans – or the kind of pop culture obsessed henchmen who haven’t felt fresh since the 1990s and certainly don’t feel fresh here. It’s not enough just to have Russian goons who like it The Bachelor. You have to make them fun The Bachelor in interesting ways.
Yet the show is very busy almost from the start – usually in a compelling way – and hurtles from one twist and cliffhanger to the next, relying on the very fine ensemble to sell the emotional stakes.
It’s all led by Cole, who keeps you guessing for a while how “average” his character is – if one Long kiss goodnight or whatever kind of surprise comes, it still comes – offering a good mix of ingenuity and growing confusion. For an episode or two, it feels like Cole is leaning towards a comedic interpretation of the character that isn’t reflected in the dialogue. But he becomes less funny and more exhausted by the circumstances.
That makes for a nice contrast to Barrett, who gets funnier as Leon becomes more desperate and less willing to confront. Barrett also benefits from his partnership with McWilliams, in what is perhaps my favorite interpretation of the increasingly common TV archetype of the true-crime obsessive able to turn their amateurish fascination into real-world skills.
McWilliams makes Cathy hilariously resourceful, without letting viewers forget that her eagerness to rush headlong into a world she’s mostly familiar with from basic cable can have nasty consequences. If John with the cap somehow breaks out, expect McWilliams to be the main beneficiary.
Consider this review my contribution to putting the show on a general radar.
BET+ has had shows with big titles (First Wives Club) and even an Emmy nominee (The Mrs. Pat Show), But John with the cap could well be the kind of series suitable to create even more buzz. For four episodes, it is generally entertaining and sometimes even gripping. The elements are there to grow the show into something even better.