I think about Andrew Johnston any time I write about television, or when I think about terminal illness, and how we can never know how much time we have left.
Andrew, who died of cancer ten years ago today at age 40, was a film and TV critic, mainly for Time Out New York. I always liked him, and we communicated regularly through email and saw each other at parties, but I didn’t become really close friends with him until the final 18 months of his life, after he asked me to fill in for him as editor of Time Out‘s now-defunct TV and home video section while he was on leave to undergo surgery and chemotherapy (the first of many rounds of treatment).
Andrew originally wrote in summer of 2007 to ask if I could recommend anyone who might be able to do the job while he was on leave. Among other things, he wanted somebody who had experience editing a rotating roster of critics with strong egos (which I had, being the founder and editor of the film blog The House Next Door, which is now a part of Slant magazine) and who was available to start immediately and didn’t mind that the job didn’t pay much. Because I was a single parent who had recently (foolishly) quit a full time job and was making a meager income freelancing for The New York Times film section and a couple of other places, I asked if it was OK if I submitted myself for the job. It turns out that’s what Andrew was hoping would happen because, as he put it, he wanted somebody who would run the section more or less as he would have, and who wouldn’t plot to replace him. Plus, he added, “You’re my best friend.”
I later told Andrew’s mother, the poet Martha Orton, that I felt a stab of guilt the minute Andrew said this, because I never thought of him as my best friend, even though I liked him a lot. Mostly he was just a guy I had a lot of things in common with.
We ran in same circles of in New York media in the ’90s and early aughts, a time when Generation Xers were eager to acquire positions of influence that were then being held by Baby Boomers and a few critics from the World War II generation. (Things have circled around again since then, as they always do; now it’s millennials and the generation after that are itching to become part of the establishment, if only to get good healthcare.) Andrew and I were both elected to the New York Film Critics Circle in the same year, 1998, when we were both 29; that made us the youngest members of the organization at that point. We felt like goofy kids sitting across the table from boldfaced names like Andrew Sarris, Rex Reed and John Simon, who’d been at it for decades. We talked up ’80s and ’90s films like “Repo Man” and “Drugstore Cowboy” that hadn’t entered the pantheon yet (a favorite pastime of young critics from every generation), and agreed that recent developments in series television (including “Oz” and “The Sopranos”) were positioning it as a possible replacement for feature films at the center of cultural conversation—a blasphemous idea among Boomer critics, many of whom thought the younger medium was inherently inferior and always would be.
But none of that necessarily qualified me for “best friend” status. So I did my best to try to earn it, belatedly, during what turned out to be the final stretch of Andrew’s life. I hung out with him, talked on the phone with him, emailed back and forth with him, confided in him when I was going through my own problems as a single parent and single man (we both broke up with our girlfriends on the same day, as a result of discussing dissatisfactions that we were both experiencing). I grew to love and admire Andrew’s parents. They became a partial replacement for my own mother and stepfather, from whom I was estranged at the time.
Even as I watched Andrew deteriorate from cancer, I didn’t understand the magnitude of his suffering until the very end, when it became hard for him to walk without help, and his speech and thinking became clouded and he began to smell faintly of lead, as cancer patients nearing the end of the road sometimes do. Re-watching “Breaking Bad” along with my daughter a few years after Andrew’s death—one of Andrew’s favorite shows, though one that, like so many others, he never got to see through to the finale—I was overcome with empathy for what he must have been going through. I broke down while sitting on the couch next to my daughter as I watched the show’s hero get sick and lose his hair and stamina. I rarely have that powerful a reaction while watching fiction, and in retrospect I’m sure it’s because I was suppressing the full knowledge of what Andrew endured. Even though I had a front row seat as he was dealing with all that, I didn’t get it until later.
I wrote a little bit about that experience in my obituary for Andrew, which was published at The House Next Door, where he recapped a number of TV series for me, including “The Wire,” “Mad Men” and “Friday Night Lights.” And I included bits and pieces of his “Mad Men” recaps as footnotes in my book about the show, Mad Men Carousel, which also includes original poems by Martha. I try to keep his legacy alive in pieces like this one, and Martha and I and our mutual friend Keith Uhlich are working on a book about him, just in case any publishers out there are reading this and happen to be interested Andrew’s life story and work.
Andrew was a brilliant man with a quicksilver mind and a heedless, jumbled manner of speaking, the words practically tumbling out of his mouth, one after the other, as if trying to keep up with the thoughts that raced through his head. I often tried to imagine what it might feel like, or sound like, to actually be in Andrew’s brain as he was writing a piece. I imagined that it was like being inside a dryer filled with swirling and colliding ping pong balls, each of them tattooed with tiny, free-associative sentences. The force of his intellect was staggering. He could pivot from a discussion of J.R.R. Tolkien to an analysis of a 17th century piece of French poetry to a Shakespearean insult to a video game reference, then finish off with a quote from a Joni Mitchell or Leonard Cohen song, and somehow tie it all together in a thesis that only Andrew Johnston could come up with.
I think about him every time I sit down to write about a new movie or TV series that I love. What will I say? Can I make it as amazing as whatever Andrew would have written?
No, but I can try. I owe him that, at least.