Around December 2020, I was sick of new television. I had run through the buzzy pandemic era TV shows; I don’t consider myself a hardcore TV fan, but that little window when I didn’t have anything new to watch was rough. That’s likely why I was so excited about the premiere of Painting With Johnin January of 2021. I’ve been a fan of Lurie’s work—from the Lounge Lizards to his roles in some of Jim Jarmusch’s best films to his other, similarly unclassifiable show from the early 1990s, Fishing with John—so I figured I had at least an idea of what to expect. Seconds into the new show, I realized not only how wrong I was to assume anything, but was also overjoyed to find that, at least for that half-hour, I was watching something… weird.
If you missed out on that first season of Painting With Johnit doesn’t take long for Lurie to catch you up on what the show isn’t about, that it’s “The show where I do not teach you how to paint.” It is a show about a painter, but more about his thoughts and philosophies on life, art, and the world. That’s really the best elevator pitch I can give you for a show on one of the biggest cable networks in America. There’s no drama, no real action, and no plot. It’s meditative television where nothing really happens,
Lurie, who I reach over e-mail, sees everything he does as a form of meditation, in some way. “I used to meditate in some periods of my life. Now I try to always be meditating, if you know what I mean,” he writes. He adds that painting is one of those means, which means that when we watch his show we’re hearing his meditations on life and art, but we’re also watching him meditate, in his own way. “I try to get to a state of hypnotizing myself into the world I am creating.”
Meditative TV is having a big moment right now. At first glance, it’s fair to assume other shows streaming on HBO Max like How to With John Wilson (which was recently renewed for a third season) and Chillin Island (which just wrapped its first) has nothing in common with Lurie’s anti-painting lesson show, besides sharing a network. But speaking as somebody who is usually anti-binge, I found myself tearing through all three shows. Watching Lurie’s show, had the same impact on my mood as Chillin Islanda show where three New Yorkers and a guest or two go way, way out of their element into nature, as they did How To With John Wilson, the titular host’s quirky, off-beat love letter to New York City. Compared with other television shows, watching these required little to no involvement on my part. I didn’t have to get caught up in anything. I didn’t have to process a ton of drama. I never felt a little worse or more upset than I did before I turned them on. In fact, I usually felt refreshed.
But there’s more that goes into meditative television. It’s not the same as what The New Yorker dubbed “Ambient TV”; in fact, I find myself highly engaged. On the second episode of Chillin Island, the hosts—Alec “Despot” Reinstein, Ashok “Dap” Kondabolu and Alexey “Lakutis” Weintraub—are making their way through the swamps of Florida with the episode’s guest star, Lil Yachty, for an unknown reason. Their escapade is narrated by comedian Steven Wright’s famously droll, monotone voice, which asks, “Why are we alive? What is this thing? What are you doing?” seconds before Yachty loses his gold grill while whipping an ATV around in the mud. The three hosts go to help him, and at one point someone says, “I just feel like I can find it.” Another replies, “We all feel like that.” They’re talking about Yachty’s grill, but that phrase kept ringing around in my head. Doesn’t it feel like there’s always something we think we can find, even though it’s likely lost in the mud? This, for me, felt worth meditating on more than any convoluted plot development in a buzzier TV show.