'Painting With John': TV Review

Painting with John
HBO
Another winning, if slightly myopic, entry in a burgeoning travel TV sub-genre.
1/22/2021

Nearly 30 years after cult favorite 'Fishing With John,' musician and character actor John Lurie returns to TV with an HBO half-hour loosely focused on his tertiary career as an artist.

Travel shows are an inherently outward-facing genre, and if you're like me, you spent a lot of the early days of quarantine looking to things like House Hunters International or any of a half-dozen food-centric Netflix shows for an escape from the couch.

Recent months, though, have seen a rise in shows that use travel tropes to explore something more insular. Shows like HBO's How To With John Wilson or Netflix's Pretend It's a City are New York City travelogues of sorts, but they're more inward-looking character studies of two people and their longtime home. The Anthony Bourdain model is one of leaving your comfort zone and seeking out the universal through the exotic. These shows, two of my recent favorites, are about the psychology of embracing and recontextualizing the familiar.

The latest in the genre of journeys-of-the-mind is Painting With John, a six-episode HBO series that offers a reminder that John Lurie may also be a godfather of this genre thanks to IFC/Bravo's Fishing With John. Slightly more formless and significantly more myopic than How To or Pretend It's a City, Painting With John is still a soothing, contemplative, eccentric series with plenty to recommend it.

For those who don't know Lurie's backstory, the acclaimed musician and gravel-voiced character actor began experiencing serious health issues in 2000. As he puts it in the series, he beat cancer, but it's clear that that's not the only thing wrong with him, and he explains that on any given day, he has only a couple of good hours. Unable to perform music live anymore, he uses the time to paint. As part of the fallout from his possibly myriad maladies, Lurie moved to an unspecified island in the Caribbean, where he lives up in the hills, above the forest canopy, with a somewhat distant view of the ocean.

The forest canopy plays a major role in Painting With John because he is determined to get a soaring shot of the trees to open each episode, but his ability to pilot a drone through the forest is decidedly lacking, leading to one unplanned crash after another.

"I crashed seven drones," he laments at the start of the second episode. "Any idiot can fly a drone."

One thing any idiot cannot do, Lurie emphasizes, is paint.

"Bob Ross was wrong. Everybody can't paint. It's not true," he declares. Still, he suggests that nearly everybody was able to paint at one point in their youth, but that kind of creativity is nurtured out of us as we age past childhood. He praises his own parents for helping him and his siblings hold on to some of that childlike wonder, adding, "In my case, they may have gone too far, and I'm still searching for my inner adult."

Lurie is a goofball and much of Painting With John is simply going back and forth between personal recollections with some connection to his creative process and silly present-day mockery of the creative process of making a TV show. That meta jesting includes taunting Erik Mockus, the show's cinematographer and editor, trying to stage scenes around his reticent housekeepers, and acknowledging documentary conventions like the "polite smile" that he thinks is supposed to punctuate talking head segments.

"My polite smile frightens people," he worries, glancing into the camera. "Fuck."

As you might guess from Lurie's feelings about legendary happy cloud artist Ross, Painting With John is not instructive on any level. Instead, it's artistically hypnotic, full of tight close-ups of delicate brushstrokes, chaotically mixed colors and the seeping capillary action of different types of paint being absorbed differently depending on the canvas. It's all accompanied by a Lurie-composed score, and we're generally able to trace a single painting or two as they progress in each episode. Sometimes the paintings relate to a recounted story or a nebulous theme of an episode. Lurie is a generally terrific painter, sometimes abstract and sometimes primitivist, and the intimacy Mockus conjures when filming his process and then eventually revealing the complete work is fascinating — even if you may only occasionally come away from an episode with any insight into Lurie's technique.

Lurie is a vibrant, if grouchy, painter and a charming, if grouchy, raconteur and when Painting With John simulates a therapeutic experience for him, it's a pleasure to watch, especially with episodes all running close to 20 minutes. What you notice he misses, especially if you watched Fishing With John, is a reliable foil to bounce ideas off of.

His loneliness is clearly part of the story here, and there's poignancy in that, but he's less able to reckon with his status as an outsider in his tropical home. The scenes with his housekeepers are strangely tone-deaf. Neither gets to show a real personality or gets to speak with a real voice and their "Ha ha, wacky gringo" eye-rolling doesn't give them nearly the agency Lurie wants to pretend it does.

There's a not-unfamiliar blending of hipster liberalism and rich-guy colonialism that he can't reconcile, and when he reflects on the world outside of himself, he's prone to making banal observations. He has a long monologue, for example, in which he compares the hollow laughter of rich New Yorkers to the "genuine" laughter of working-class people in Thailand or Africa, and he sounds like every high-schooler who ever went on a safari.

Somehow, even more so than How To With John Wilson or Pretend It's a City, Painting With John suggests that this burgeoning genre is a very white and very privileged space. This is even truer when you notice how many of the paintings featured in the show are available for purchase as very expensive prints on Lurie's website. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed these six episodes plenty, and I'm considering buying several prints. I'm just ready for a little more variety in who gets to present these explorations of personal space.

Airs Fridays at 11 p.m. on HBO, beginning Jan. 22.