John Doe

by Tobias Peterson

7 October 2002


Going Through the Motions

He’s a dark-haired loner who, when he’s not solving inexplicable crimes, spends his time brooding over an all-consuming, yet elusive, Truth. Yes, it sounds a little too familiar. Though the titular character of John Doe (Dominic Purcell) may not work for the FBI (at least not to his or the viewers’ knowledge), his story and the rest of the show owe a lot to the marginalized-protagonist-on-a-quest-for-answers model made popular by The X-Files’ Fox Mulder.

In the series’ first episode, Doe awakens naked on an abandoned island off the coast of Seattle. After falling off a cliff into the ocean and being rescued by passing fisherman, he faces a few questions from paramedics. When asked, “Do you know what day it is?” he gives the exact time, right down to the second. When asked his name and identity, however, our hero draws a blank.

cover art

John Doe

Director: Brandon Camp, Mike Thompson, Mimi Leder
Creator: Mimi Leder
Cast: Dominic Purcell, John Marshall Jones, Jayne Brook, Sprague Grayden, William Forsythe
Regular airtime: Fridays 9:00pm ET


This encounter sums up John Doe‘s general premise: Doe knows everything except who he is and where he came from. Despite his encyclopedic mastery of trivia (he knows the population of Morocco, the number of M&Ms in a packet [both plain and peanut], and the technical term for fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth), he is unable to trace his origins or explain his own vast access to facts and stats.

John Doe sets up Doe’s quest to discover this missing past to be a master narrative connecting all the episodes, much as Mulder’s search for proof of extra-terrestrial life (and the whereabouts of his abducted sister) haunted the character for several seasons. Tantalizing clues—a scar on Doe’s chest, a memory of a woman on a boat, a fingerprint on a piece of glass—are slowly offered up as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that will eventually come together as Doe’s identity. But, also like Mulder, he spends the better part of the show solving unrelated mysteries and crimes, activities that allow for only brief interludes in which Doe contemplates the answers that elude him.

This crime-solving takes place in service of Detective Frank Hayes (John Marshall Jones), whom Doe meets when he reports himself “missing.” Hayes enlists Doe’s prodigious intellect to help with cases that have him stumped. In return, he allows Doe access to police databases and information. All of this takes place under the skeptical eye of Lieutenant Jamie Avery (Jayne Brook), who thinks Doe is a loose cannon who has no business helping the cops.

The trio’s relationship neatly reproduces the conventions of the buddy cop genre, in which the straight cop and the wild cop alternately provoke and placate their irritated superior in the course of fighting crime. As a result, there is little about John Doe that isn’t expected. The notable exception is that Avery is a woman, while most of television and film’s angry police chiefs are men. Her position of authority is constantly undercut, however, by Hayes and Doe’s successes in nabbing criminals. And, to be fair, many series (including The X-Files ) have riffed on this very same formula with critical and commercial success.

The difference is that John Doe‘s narrative logic is both preposterous and predictable. Examples litter the first two episodes. While chasing a suspected kidnapper in the premiere, Doe finds a laundry token left behind by the subject. He instantly knows what motel would use such a token and, in a few minutes, the case is solved. In episode two, Doe happens upon a flower petal at a crime scene that leads him to suspect a Vietnamese embalmer of murder. It’s true that microscopic details often serve as lynchpins in solving real life crime. Yet, John Doe’s incredible discoveries come off as laughable.

Like some kind of super-intelligent MacGuyver, Doe’s farfetched yet unerring police work is the stuff of Saturday morning superheroes, not primetime cop dramas. There’s nothing compelling about watching a man who knows everything solve crimes. As far as viewers are concerned, his hunches are never in doubt, his solutions always correct. Even if the good guys always eventually win in other crime dramas, they usually experience doubt, frustration, and complication along the way, to create suspense. In John Doe, suspense takes a backseat to certainty.

The only uncertainty here is Doe’s own origin. But the unraveling of this mystery is not given sufficient screen time to keep the audience’s interest. Because John Doe bears striking similarities to The X-Files, it’s this striking lack of conflict that stands out as the show’s major shortcoming. While The X-Files played frequently with questions about whether an event had paranormal roots or more mundane causes, Doe doesn’t allow for any such ambiguity. As much as Doe doesn’t know about himself, he (and we) know everything there is to know about whodunit, a full thirty minutes or so before the perpetrator is nabbed. The show, in essence, answers its questions as soon as they are asked. And then it just goes through the motions.

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