The "John Doe" story begins when our handsome, amnesiac hero is fished, naked and buff, off the coast of Seattle in the pilot. How he got there is a mystery. But in the opening minutes of every episode there's a nice longshot of him falling into the ocean, gleaming white buttocks in full view.
Still, this isn't simply another version of "The Bourne Identity," because good-looking as John Doe is, he's also quite a geek.
John Doe, who's played (with an American accent) by the previously unknown Australian actor Dominic Purcell, has no identity but possesses complete and total recall of every knowable fact in the world: the population of Peru in 1853, the number of blue cars in the state of Washington, the exact ingredients in a box of Apple Jacks.
More usefully, he parlays his arcane knowledge about horses and commodities to make a small fortune at the track and then a larger one in the stock market. By the first episode, he's no longer naked but well dressed, comfortably ensconced in a pricey loft, with a spunky teenage Girl Friday (Sprague Grayden) to run errands and interpret the ways of humans.
"You totally crushed that little dude," she scolds her boss, as John Doe gives a 10-year-old admirer that brush-off.
John Doe quickly learns he can use his superbrain to help the police solve crimes. He has a beleaguered Watson in the person of Seattle detective Frank Hayes (John Marshall Jones, in a nice performance), whose main job is to set up John Doe's weirdo observations.
"You need to go back to charm school, buddy boy," Hayes remarks, after Doe suddenly grabs a fat slob suspect, who was working at a computer, by the throat.
"His computer was running a parallel, spatial orientation search!" Doe protested. Oh, yeah; I hate it when that happens.
Unlike Sherlock Holmes, John Doe isn't suave and bossy but jittery and boyish, with an awkward habit of blurting out the answers to questions nobody's asked: "Human sperm was first discovered in 1677," he remarks on a visit to a fertility clinic, as the nurse rolls her eyes. He's like Encyclopedia Brown with really ripped glutes.
Actually, John Doe's bare butt is probably the mildest element in the show, which has enough gross-out gore to rival "CSI" In John Doe's Seattle, bodies show up drained of blood and hung by their heels; or cut in half like the Black Dahlia; or missing their brains, which later appear in jars in some maniac's hideout. No wonder poor Hayes often has a handkerchief pressed to his mouth.
So who is John Doe? We won't know until the last episode, which the producers naturally hope won't be for a very long time. "Is he an alien? A time traveler? Just a human being with a tumor? An angel? Some sort of lobotomy experiment?" Camp asked rhetorically.
Well, I'd like to find out, but I don't know how long I'm going to stay with it. Mostly each episode is a self-contained crime drama, as conventional as "Mannix," with just enough who-is-John-Doe? stuff tossed in at each conclusion as a tease.
A woman glimpses John Doe from a passing ferry and yells "Tommy!" Worried factotums stride nervously into the boss's office in some far-off land, clutching pictures of John Doe from a newspaper. A doctor who helped Doe is killed and buried in the desert, as a mysterious older woman (Grace Zabriskie) looks annoyed and vaguely regretful or maybe just constipated.
Who? How the heck? Wh-a-a-a-a? Alas, each week we're back to square one and more mutilated corpses. Frankly, I'm beginning to lose patience.
A more rewarding story about a know-it-all is the excellent 3-hour PBS documentary "Benjamin Franklin" (Nov. 19, 9 to 11 p.m. and Nov. 20, 9 to 10:30 p.m., check local listings.) Just a recap on how much smarter Franklin -- played winningly here by Tony Award-winning actor Richard Easton -- was than you and me and probably even John Doe:
He discovered the properties of electricity and invented the lightning rod, the Franklin stove, swimming flippers, the glass armonica, bifocals, a device to replicate hand-written letters. He created an odometer to measure more efficient postal routes, developed a new system of street lighting and even organized a prototype of the Rotary Club and the first lending library in America.
"And he did all this in his spare time," executive producer Catherine Allan said at the PBS news conference.
Franklin was the only man to sign all three documents that established the United States: the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War, and the Constitution. For hundreds of years, he was the only American elected to the British Royal Society and the French Academy.
He may not have had John Doe's physique, but he was a confident ladies' man and took great satisfaction in himself.
"Vanity," Franklin once noted, "is one of the great comforts in life."
On the other hand, Franklin had a certain amount of modesty. The documentary closes with Mark Twain's observation that Franklin's autobiography made generations of schoolboys feel as if they were dolts, because Franklin never lets the reader in on the most salient fact -- that he was a genius.
And unlike "John Doe," he was the real thing, too.