There Needs to Be More TV Like HBO's 'Painting With John'

Like he did with his '90s cult series 'Fishing With John,' artist and musician John Lurie subverts expectations with his weird-as-hell new show.
Chicago, US
January 22, 2021, 12:00pm
​John Lurie (Credit: HBO)
John Lurie (Credit: HBO)

John Lurie boasts an astounding and trailblazing resume that positioned him as a peripheral but essential figure in art, music, film, and television. His raucous jazz band, the Lounge Lizards, were experimental, influential, and a favorite of Andy Warhol's. His close friend Jean-Michel Basquiat slept on his floor and was inspired by Lurie's visual art. He co-starred in films like Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law and Stranger Than Paradise, as well as Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, and he provided saxophone, full scores, and soundtracks for countless other movies. His 90s IFC show Fishing With John, a spoof on nature shows where he hangs out on a boat with his friends like Tom Waits, Willem Dafoe, and Dennis Hopper, is a subversive cult classic. 


Over the last 20 years, following a diagnosis of Advanced Lyme Disease and later cancer that left him lacking the energy to perform music, Lurie has returned primarily to painting, and his work has been exhibited in museums around the world and is in the Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection. Even if you aren't familiar with his career, the now-68-year-old Lurie is the kind of charismatic storyteller you'd want to sit next to at a bar and hear meandering tales from for hours. Spending time with Lurie is the core of what's appealing about the fascinating new HBO series Painting With John. Part-memoir, part-art class, and part-experimental film, the show is weird and uncompromising in its own singular vision. (Full disclosure: in 2014, Lurie briefly hosted a podcast on VICE called Vice After Dark with John Lurie). 

Like Lurie's previous foray into television, Fishing With John (which is now streaming on Criterion Channel), his HBO follow-up moves at a languid, meditative pace. But instead of filming Lurie fishing with his friends, Painting With John mostly just spends time with Lurie and occasionally his longtime assistant Nesrin Wolf and his other employee Ann Mary Gludd James. Set mostly in his home on an undisclosed Caribbean island, the show, which is written, directed, and soundtracked by Lurie, leisurely documents the artist as he goes about his day: flying and accidentally crashing remote control drones, attending to his many watercolor paintings, rolling tires down a hill for fun, all while he's reminiscing on his life and career. It's low budget, plotless, and patient television that's assuredly not for everyone but will be an absolute balm for those looking to watch something that isn't narrative-based, serialized prestige TV. Like HBO's also unique and singular-minded How to With John Wilson and Adult Swim's Joe Pera Talks With You, this show finds beauty in the mundanity of daily life. 

In the 20-minute pilot, Lurie quashes the expectation that he's going to teach the viewer how to paint. As he's sitting at his workstation he says, “Bob Ross was wrong. Everybody can’t paint. It’s not true." But it's not meant to discourage; Lurie immediately dives into a story about the importance of how his parents relentlessly fostered creativity in him and his siblings. It's a moving anecdote that involves his parents sacrificing their own personal goals to let their children be themselves. It's got enough emotional heft to hook you into the following five episodes. Later, he muses on how “that childlike wonderment thing” is an essential part of his life and creativity and jokes that because of that, he's working on finding "his inner-adult." The scenes in Painting With John are short bursts of Lurie's life mixed with extended sequences of him painting soundtracked to his vast back catalog. 

Despite some of his heartwarming stories about family and creativity, he's hardly a Mr. Rogers-like figure. He'll talk about the time he did coke with Rick James and Studio 54 owner Steve Rubell in a broom closet, riff on when Gore Vidal was rude to him, and tell a particularly gruesome story about making the album art for the Lounge Lizards' 1988 LP Voice of Chunk that involves him strangling a live eel. Though Lurie is calming and amiable, he's also intense, brooding, and snarky. At one point, after talking about how much he hates fame, he implores the viewer to turn off the program and if not, don't tell their friends about it (an irony that is not lost on this writer). When he brings up his cancer diagnosis, he tells his imaginary audience, "don't make that face." He's admittedly uncomfortable behind the camera and surmises the people who are good at it are "probably sociopaths." At one point, he says that the more he's done the show,  he's become a worse person. He deadpans, "I'm not kidding." 

Lurie has said that Painting With John was originally supposed to be an Instagram-only thing to cheer up his online followers, but when executive producer Adam McKay (Vice, The Big Short) saw early footage, he sold it to HBO. It's a miracle it's on that channel. There are few things on television that are the product of just one person's singular vision and bodes well for the future of TV that instead of these prestige TV-aspirational, marquee-budget programs, a studio can allow one person to make something modest and wholly original.  "I am fairly certain that the reason Breaking Bad was so great was because they left Vince Gilligan alone," Lurie said in a 2014 interview. "With most projects there are all these people meddling with what you do, to ruin it. The Gatekeepers. It is almost like there is a conspiracy to maintain mediocrity." Watching all six short episodes of Painting With John, it's a good thing HBO left him alone.