Movie Reviews

Half-Ass DVD Review: John From Cincinnati

HBO’s early advertising for John from Cincinnati, last year’s new series from David Milch (Deadwood, NYPD Blue), called it “surf noir”. That’s not an easy genre to visualize. Raymond Chandler set in the underbelly of the surfing culture? It sounded intriguing, and then the series premiered and it actually turned out to be “surf metaphysics”. It was surreal, funny, dark, infuriating, and brilliant.

That’s right, I said “brilliant”.  Yes, it was canceled after one season, but longevity and quality aren’t necessarily direct corollaries. And sure, the ratings were disappointing by HBO standards, though not as low as HBO claimed, and you don’t even want me to get started on that. It was an occasionally frustrating series, between the unexplained phenomena and Milch’s tendency to write dense dialouge that takes a second listen to crack. It was not a show for casual viewers, but for those with patience and an open mind, it was an unbelievably gratifying experience.

John tells the story of the Yosts, a family of surfers. Mitch Yost (Bruce Greenwood) was one of the biggest names in the sport until he ruined his knee. His son Butchie destroyed his own career with drugs. And now Butchie’s son, Shaun, is poised to move to the big time. But everything changes for the Yosts, and the entire Imperial Beach community, when John comes to town.

John (Austin Nichols) is a blank-faced young man clad in white. Initially, he speaks only in vague statements (“Some things I know and some things I don’t know”, “The end is near”), or by repeating phrases that he hears from other characters. (You have to trust me on this, but “I don’t know Butchie instead” is the best one-liner in a long, long time.) John’s origins are unexplained, and he gets more mysterious with time. By the second episode, we learn that he doesn’t know how to go to the bathroom. Shortly after that, he recovers from a stabbing, and he starts repeating phrases that were used in scenes in which he didn’t appear.

It’s not just John, either. Shortly after the title character’s arrival, Mitch Yost starts to float. A parakeet comes back from the dead and resurrects another character. People see things that aren’t happening, and that strange armless stick person starts to appear everywhere. The very nature of their reality changes as soon as John is introduced.

Personally, I found the weirdness to be enjoyable. It felt like it all pointed to something, rather than simply being random. Still, the cast of characters firmly grounded the reality. True, Bill Jacks owned a parakeet that could bring back the dead, but he was also a widowed ex-cop who could barely live with his own sadness until he found somebody to protect. Cass was a videographer whose camera occasionally filmed impossible things, but she was also a woman trying to get out from under the thumb of an unscrupulous employer and find herself. These people aren’t props around which to base surrealism. They’re people who just happen to find themselves in a strange maelstrom which they didn’t create.

As in Deadwood, Milch excels at creating characters who feel real. In only three seasons, he made Al Swearengen feel like an actual person, and he resonated in a way that few fictional characters ever do. Here, he gives us Freddie Lopez (Dayton Callie), a low-level enforcer for the Hawaiian mob. He enters the series because of a drug deal, and he ends up becoming emotionally involved in the lives of the Yosts, even if he can’t bring himself to admit it. It’s only in the final episode that we see how much the events have affected him and how deeply he wants to be something other than what he is. His unlikely friendship with Bill is such a vivid and enjoyable relationship that despite the levitating surfers and prophecy, it achieves an honesty that in incredibly affecting.

The cast is mostly spectacular. If there were any justice in this world, Ed O’Neill would forever be identified as Bill, rather than as Al Bundy. Some Deadwood favorites show up, playing characters very different from their Old West alter egos. Callie, Jim Beaver, Garrett Dillahunt, Paula Malcomson, and others all manage to create characters who are just as interesting and compelling as they did on Milch’s previous series. Rebecca DeMornay’s performance as Cissie Yost has been criticized as being too over-the-top, but I tend to think that her character has chosen to behave in a certain way. John’s later revelations about her past make me think Cissie made a conscious choice to drive people away, rather than run the risk of repeating a certain mistake. Newcomer Greyson Fletcher as Shaun is flat and unaffected, but I’m not convinced that there isn’t a narrative reason for that. Maybe he’s supposed to seem like something is missing.

Naturally, the abbreviated run means that most of our questions aren’t answered. It’s especially frustrating, because John speaks directly to the viewer in the finale, offering hints for Season Two. But the fact that it’s open-ended leaves us with a ten-episode televised Rorschach Test. Is John a reluctant messiah? Is he an alien? Could he be a sentient radio wave? The series points to all of them as a possible explanation. Is Luke Perry’s Linc a deposed Devil? Why does Mitch Yost float? Who did Freddie see in the volcano?

In a way, it almost doesn’t matter. We may never have gotten those answers even if the series had seen another season. That’s not really what it’s about. Ultimately, it’s a show about people. It’s about the power of community, and it’s about exactly what it takes for somebody to make the changes that they know they have to make. Everybody in the series is better off for having known John, even if they don’t realize it. He serves as the catalyst for change that each and every one of them desperately needs. And as much as I enjoy arguing the significance of John’s videos or what exactly is going to happen on 9/11/14, the thing that’s going to stick with me is seeing Bill make it to the top of the staircase.

It’s beautiful, profane, funny, true, surreal, and maybe even transcendent. John from Cincinnati is the kind of show that HBO made their name on back in the old days. That they cut and run speaks worse of the network than it does for John.
“Without the ones and zeros, the big and huge don’t mean dick.” – John Monade

Score: five out of five beans

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