One-Season Wonders, Weirdos, And Wannabes considers the merits of short-lived TV shows. In this installment: John Doe, which ran for 21 episodes on Fox in 2002 and 2003.
When it comes to the discussion of one season, “canceled before their time” television, few networks get as much finger-pointing as Fox does. Google search autocompletes “Fox cancels” with “Fox cancels everything” or “Fox cancels everything good,” and plenty of pop-culture sites have featured such compilations as “The 10 Best Short Lived Fox Shows” or “The 20 Greatest Shows Canceled By Fox Before Their Time.” When Family Guy came back from its own 2002 Fox cancellation in 2005, the show listed all 29 (short-lived but not necessarily one-season) shows the network canceled in the interim. That list included one-and-dones like Firefly and Fastlane, which both premiered in the same 2002-03 Fox season as John Doe—a show that, by all accounts at the time, Fox wanted to succeed despite low ratings. Nevertheless, John Doe’s executive producers were rightfully wary of the network’s decision to put the show in the infamous “Friday Night Death Slot.”
John Doe told the story of a man who wakes up naked on an island off the coast of Seattle, knowing everything in the world there is to know—except for who he is and how and why he ended up there. Plagued with a branded scar that even the most intense internet searches can’t identify, monochromatic color-blindness, and intense claustrophobia, John Doe is the ultimate man of mystery. “If I could know it, I could do it,” Doe muses in the pilot. “At least with a little practice.”
The 21 episodes of John Doe asked only one real question: “Who is John Doe?” But the show never really asked itself, “What is John Doe?” As high-concept as John Doe was, it was all over the place, idea-wise. Despite the sci-fi premise and the mystery behind John Doe’s identity, the show was ultimately just another procedural with a twist. Advertisements touted John Doe as “a one-man CSI” and contained taglines like “The world’s smartest investigator… is the ultimate missing person.” After getting Doe’s “normal life” prepared in the pilot—excessive wealth, flashy car, spacious loft, a couple of sidekicks, and an evidence room for those times he did try to figure out who he was—the series introduced its procedural elements. But the type of procedural was still unclear, as the pilot and next couple of episodes often found themselves straddling the line of either a twist on the buddy-cop show or a twist on the private-detective show, without fully committing to either.
For the former, the series introduced Doe and the audience to Seattle Metro PD’s Detective Frank Hayes (John Marshall Jones), the everyman counterpart to John Doe’s brainiac, who defends Doe to his boss (and former partner), the skeptical Lieutenant Jamie Avery (Jayne Brook). The latter type of show, however, was more familiar, given the state of television at the time: With his constant brooding, leather jackets, gelled hair, and perky, young “assistant” (Sprague Grayden as Karen Kawalski), John Doe was similar to Angel in its first season. John Doe as a “private investigator” was like if Angel had no baggage (that he could remember) and worked exclusively with Detective Kate Lockley instead of taking regular clients. And in keeping with first-season Angel’s noir side of things, quite a few early episodes of John Doe relied heavily on Doe’s voiceovers, which did the heavy lifting for Dominic Purcell’s blank slate of a character.
Seeing John Doe now doesn’t just inspire memories of Angel’s David Boreanaz, but Smallville’s Tom Welling, and even Supernatural’s Jensen Ackles (who had been on Fox’s own Dark Angel), three actors and characters who make Purcell’s Doe come across like a very poor facsimile in comparison. Purcell’s character called for him to play a wave of emotions shrouded in confusion in a way hasn’t been asked of the actor since, for good reason. Intimidating badass (Prison Break) and manic meathead (The Flash, Legends Of Tomorrow), but never pensive, complex genius.
By the middle of the season, the show officially pushed the character as an amnesiac Sherlock Holmes and a police consultant, right in time for him to meet his own Moriarty in “The Mourner” and “John D.O.A.” (the winter finale and midseason premiere, respectively). The eponymous character of “The Mourner” is an over-the-top, evil-genius serial killer who obsesses over Doe being the only person with the intellect to challenge him. This is where John Doe really hits a stride: Doug Hutchison’s performance as The Mourner is the most lively of the series and serves as an amusing foil to Dominic Purcell’s tortured-yet-earnest-yet-manic-yet-brooding performance. It also features the one scene that truly puts John Doe’s color-blindness to good use outside of deus ex machina purposes:
As Sherlock Holmes, John Doe needed a Watson. In theory, that would have been Karen, who’s an 18-year-old art student when she’s not assisting Doe. But as the show continued, it found less use for the character, given her lack of skills outside the art world. By the time John Doe accepted its Holmes-ian status, she had already been cut down to a scene or less per episode. Doe’s Watson then became his other civilian friend, bar owner/former special ops Digger (William Forsythe), just in time to help Doe out when Karen is killed by the Phoenix Organization (the Big Bad of the series) in episode 14, “Ashes To Ashes.”
That episode also introduced the other version of John Doe: a show that served as a representation of a post-9/11 world. That brought the NSA into the fold, as the intelligence organization was also looking into Phoenix and wanted to enlist John Doe to help the cause. The NSA officially declared the Phoenix Organization a terrorist cell, with Doe’s NSA contact (Matt Winston) even comparing them to the orchestrator of the September 11 attacks (“These guys are like Bin Laden. Never more than one night in the same tent”) in the finale.
That’s a lot to take before delving into the show’s mythology, which was even more overwrought. In a post-Lost world, the existence of a high-concept copycat series with no real plan had become more acceptable. On a smaller scale, John Doe never quite knew how to use Doe’s color-blindness (outside of the above scene), often just showing his point-of-view to remind the audience that he doesn’t see in color. The added selective colorization for certain people and clues to John Doe’s identity didn’t follow a consistent set of rules. In the pilot, Doe saw a kidnapped girl in color, without her ever becoming relevant to the story as a whole. Although most other colorized roads led to that Phoenix Organization, that was the biggest dead end. Despite possible clues about Doe, like the colorized woman (eventually known as Theresa) who called out “Tommy” to him at the end of the pilot, procedural rules essentially reset the show on a weekly basis.
After weeks of hints about the then-unnamed Phoenix Organization, Doe initially got close to them (and his origin) in the episode “Idaho,” where he learned that he really was a Clark Kent type-turned-superbrain.
Except, by the end of the episode, it turned out that all of that was a lie. With the exception of John Doe finding a phoenix figurine, everything learned in “Idaho” was yet another step back in actually solving the mystery. It wasn’t until the final two episodes that the show completely scrapped the possibility of Doe being a science experiment, effectively taking the “sci” out of “sci-fi.” After disproving the existence of psychics and aliens earlier in the season, these two episodes introduced the former into the canon (and made Doe psychic himself) and made the latter child’s play in comparison to what was actually happening. John Doe’s very existence was revealed to be a religious one, with the Phoenix Organization an organized cult. Series creators Brandon Camp and Mike Thompson explained it further in 2004:
Turns out, the Phoenix believed Doe was the Messiah and its members were actually protecting Doe from a second group, which wanted him dead. The truth: Doe was injured in a boating accident. That mark on his chest? Metal from the explosion. His Überbrain? A by-product of transcending his body during a near-death experience, traveling to a spiritual place where all the universe’s questions are answered, and returning… naked!
Dominic Purcell also elaborated on the reveal with a somewhat contrary explanation that Doe was “the messiah returned,” while the Phoenix Organization “were working for the Vatican… The Catholics. They didn’t want it to be revealed that the true Christ had returned.”
But who was he before he was the messiah? Who was “Tommy,” the name he’d believed to be his own? Thompson shrugged, “You’d think we would have actually come up with his name.” Camp unhelpfully added, “We have no idea.”
There was no Tommy. The series-ending cliffhanger inexplicably involved a Phoenix Organization member getting facial reconstruction to look like Digger. So which is more disappointing: An ending with no answers or answers that make everything leading up to it useless?
In the years since John Doe’s cancellation, fans added the show to the list of Fox programs that were canceled before the network ever gave them a chance. But upon further examination, perhaps stopping John Doe before it could get any further was the best decision. Plenty of shows go through identity crises through their first seasons only to become their true selves in the second. But based on the way John Doe ended and the epilogues from the talent involved, the somewhat fascinating sci-fi version of the show certainly wouldn’t have existed in subsequent seasons.
John Doe didn’t exactly have the most original idea for a premise—The Bourne Identity had hit theaters and the similar Kyle XY had already been written before its existence—but it was based on an interesting idea. It also had a handful of ways to execute that premise, and used them all, whether they worked or not. But what was John Doe? Was it a buddy-cop show? Was it Sherlock Holmes with a twist? Was it sci-fi? Was it a conspiracy-theory series? Was it about the messiah? In the end, John Doe ended up bringing up just as many questions as its main character did.
One-season wonder, weirdo, or wannabe? John Doe probably knows the answer to this already: Wannabe.