With the exception of David Mamet, I can't think of another writer who makes the profane sound so poetic. But instead of long rambling dialogue pieces that supports the classically old world 19th century view of the South Dakota denizens of "Deadwood", series creator David Milch has transferred the vulgar to modern day California- and more specifically to the rag-tag surfing culture that inhabit a small tract of beach front property known as Imperial Beach. Blending adept humor, mysticism, ensemble melodramatics and some downright 'out there' plot strands, "John From Cincinnati" is a unique viewing experience. Even when I had no idea where the thing was headed, it kept me embroiled in whatever direction it chose to take. With today's cluttered TV schedule and the overwhelming pressure to create a knockout series after the first episode, that alone is reason enough to celebrate this genre-bending effort from Milch.
With over half the cast from "Deadwood" making a re-appearance in "John From Cincinnati", the ambitious narrative follows the ramifications and drama that ensue when an otherworldly man named John (Austin Nichols) shows up in the beach community of I.B. Home to a family of washed out ex-competition surfers led by elder figure Mitch Yost (Bruce Greenwood), his nervous and jittery wife Cissy (a wonderful Rebecca DeMornay) and their grandson Shaun (Greyson Fletcher) who also happens to be the next great thing in a long family line of great water athletes, strange occurrences begin happening. Mitch levitates a foot off the ground for no reason. Shaun makes a remarkable recovery after a particularly vicious surfing accident. Shaun's father, Butchie (Brian Van Holt) who gave him up to his parents as a baby and retreated into a life of heroin addiction after his own surfing career came crashing down, doesn't feel the need to cop anymore when John's around. Birds kept as pets by neighbor Bill (Ed O' Neill) take on telepathic abilities and breathe life back into dead people. There's also a stable of hanger-ons, motel dwellers, doctors and girlfriends that pay witness to the many miracles that seem to happening in Imperial Beach, some of them turning into 'vision-seers' themselves. Basically, there's alot of weird shit going down in I.B. Added to the mixture of supernatural calamity is Link Stark (Luke Perry), a surfing corporation owner who desperately wants to sign young Shaun Yost to his label and whose presence stirs up feelings of regret, greed and maternal instincts due to his past experiences with the Yost family.
There are many more characters floating around the periphery of the minimal settings (run down motel, surf shop, the Yost home and the white sands along the beach) and each one adds dimension and energy to the proceedings. There's a transplanted drug dealer (Dayton Callie aka Charlie Utter in "Deadwood") and his dim witted strong arm Palaka (Paul Ben Victor) who transform into guardian angels of sorts. There's a doctor (Garrett Dillahunt), who becomes personally involved with the Yost family after his witnessing of a miracle and becomes the voice of intelligent reason. Everyone begins to revolve around young Shaun Yost, whose unimposing 14 year old surfer character acts as the catalyst that brings everyone together. Is John an angel? An alien? The series never really makes that clear, but it's his character that proves the most confusing. He's stabbed several times throughout the ten episodes (and never dies), seems 'programmed' to only speak and parrot whatever is said to him, and holds enigmatic spells over people, such as Cass (Emily Rose). Her relationship with John leads her to lock herself up in her hotel room and obsessively review video shot on her video camera. I could go on, but the show continues to play with logic and expectations. The more I type, the more I may alienate new viewers who might shy away from the unconventional approach. "John From Cincinnati" is certainly a singular vision, free of expected series development and traditional plotting. It's not quite "Twin Peaks", but let's call it a distant cousin.
Excluding the show's weird charm, it's also wildly funny. Rebecca de Mronay as Cissy, the chain-smoking, worrisome grandmother (who still looks incredible) delivers more balled up fury than a chained tiger, most of the time at her zen-like husband, Mitch (Greenwood). A welcome return to form is Ed O' Neill who plays the retired ex-cop neighbor to the Yost family- he's a man grappling with life after a long career and the loss of his wife who still thinks he can pick up the phone and call the young guys on the force for help. His recurring grimace and "jesus christ.. jesus christ" disgust with everything modern suggests that Al Bundy is not far removed from the proceedings. Aside from the humor, there's something compulsively watchable about "John From Cincinnati". While it's tone is hard to nail down, there's the idea that something is going to happen even when very little does. Milch and co-created Kem Nunn have taken the fringes and corners of an idea and stretched them across nine hours. While it may not be required viewing for some, I found the corners and fringes of this dysfunctional sect of people utterly interesting.
When one gets down to it, the message of "John From Cincinnati" is relatively simple. It's there in the film's opening scene when John tells Mitch Yost "you should get back in the game Mitch Yost". In hindsight, he's not talking about surfing, but something much greater. Milch just takes some very weird twists and turns to get there. And those left field moves, ultimately, cancelled the show's future. As it stands now, we'll have to appreciate the show for what it is... a brilliant one-off that proves HBO can stretch it's wingspan, but audiences aren't always ready to close their eyes and make the jump. And as a replacement for HBO's "The Sopranos", airing one week after the finale of that show's grandstanding run, where else was there to go but down?
Bonus: the extremely catchy opening title sequence, courtesy of Joe Strummer.