Credit is due to David Milch: It took balls to commence his new series, John from Cincinnati, with a weathered and wizened Luke Perry (as surf promoter Linc Stark) stepping from an SUV into the early morning quietude of a California beach. For those many souls reeling from the now-infamous final moments of The Sopranos, the transition between James Gandolfini’s quizzical mug and the age-hollowed stare of a former beach bum teen idol was an associative burden I suspect they’d rather not bear. “The end is near,” says John Monad (Austin Nichols), who emerges from both the sand dune boonies (teeming with illegal aliens crossing clandestinely into the border town of Imperial Beach) and from the literal shadow of the man who was Dylan McKay.
Both prophetic Adonis and idiot man-child, John is given to statements of holy writ portent, though he’s less a messiah from on high (Jesus Fucking Christ) than an absolving creature of the sea, a sponge who soaks up the pain of others and reconstitutes it as fully-lived experience.
He is the monad, the one, the being who maintains the equilibrium of an unbalanced world. It’s tempting to label him the Stromboli to the series’s many Pinocchios, though he is himself something of a puppet, a divine instrument given to mimicry of the simplest human behaviors, which, befitting a Creator who effectively made “cocksucker” a household term, tend towards the profane and the scatological. If Deadwood, Milch’s previous series, was about a civilization on the rise, then John from Cincinnati observes a civilization in decline. The societal mechanisms are already established and practiced, and decay has set in, though this is not to say that the community lacks for spirit, merely that said spirit is most often subsumed by the addictions and temptations of everyday life. Per “Johnny Appleseed”, the series’s Joe Strummer-penned theme song: “We think there is a soul/We don’t know/That soul is hard to find.”
If there is a master narrative plan for John from Cincinnati it is the excavation and unearthing of that ineffable essence that makes us human, a tall order for what has been described, necessarily, though still reductively, as a “surf-noir.” Two episodes in, I have my doubts that Milch will be entirely able to pull it off, but there’s a consistency to his vision that helps carry us over the rough patches. It’s telling that it feels like neither a stretch nor a ham-fisted metaphor to set a crucial scene between John and drug-addled Butchie Yost (Brian Van Holt) before a wall-painting of a crucified Christ on Calvary surrounded by surfboard-bearing apostles. It’s strangely on point, a perfect encapsulation of a sport that its practitioners consider a religion unto itself. Indeed, whenever John from Cincinnati leaves land behind, it takes effortless flight. Despite Imperial Beach’s real-world cred as a so-so surfing locale, its fictional waters are healing, baptizing, renewing. Miracles don’t just happen in the surf—they are part and parcel to it.
But as the premiere episode (“His Visit: Day 1”) sets out, to see the sea is not to possess unshakeable faith. And so when fallen angel of the sport Mitch Yost (Bruce Greenwood) suddenly levitates after a lonely morning surf session, he puts his trust in paranoid self-diagnosis. “And I got fuckin’ cancer” he tells his wife Cissy (Rebecca De Mornay) as punchline to a heated argument about their grandson Shaun (Greyson Fletcher). Having lost Butchie—his son and Shaun’s father—to the lure of addiction, Mitch rules over the youngest Yost’s desires with an iron fist. As shown in a terrific sequence with shell-shocked former detective, and surrogate father, Bill Jacks (Ed O’Neill), Shaun’s talents are innate and raw—they demand the recognition and sponsorship of adults who, for the most part, can’t get out of their damn fool heads. A brilliant surfer (Fletcher—a welcome non-professional performer in a cast of pros—is, in actuality, a champion boarder on both land and sea), he also possesses the seeming ability to raise the dead.
He stumbles upon this gift quite by chance while Bill mourns the death of his pet bird Zippy. “When you’re older you’ll understand,” he says repeatedly to Shaun, who takes in the scene with an observant gaze that is innocent yet somehow wise beyond the years. He tenderly strokes the bird and it springs back to life. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” screams Bill, invoking (with more than a tinge of blasphemy) a trinity that he will call upon again at the close of episode two (“His Visit: Day 2”) when Shaun’s unwittingly selfless action comes full circle. Milch and his writing staff (which include novelist Kem Nunn and pro-surfer Steve Hawk) complicate the interpretation of the show’s miracles by making them seem almost tangential to their apparent instigators. Far from a simplistic Christ figure, John is, so far, something of an inactive presence, yet the characters congregate around him as if sensing his necessity to the communal body. He’s the beating heart that keeps them alive, however tenuously.
There are clear biblical parallels and stand-ins—I like to think the motel-bound trio of Ramon Gaviota (Luis Guzmán), Meyer Dickstein (Willie Garson), and Barry Cunningham (Matt Winston) are as much the Three Wise Men as the Three Stooges—but there’s more than a hint of false prophecy in the air. When the lottery-rich Cunningham—whom Winston plays, quite bravely, as a verbose collection of obsessive-compulsive tics—speaks of the visions that accompany his frequent seizures, it comes off, at first glance, as the yammering of a madman. But there is real pain underlying his manic-depressive behavior (the result, so Cunningham feels, of a childhood run-in with Butchie), not to mention a sense of thus far unrealized, yet rapidly simmering threat. Consider his second episode riff on The Sopranos’s call to arms: “I woke up this morning happy. I mistook that freedom for power.” Shades of Deadwood’s George Hearst, cast in the mold of a present day passive-aggressive.
Whether John from Cincinnati reaches its portended apocalypse (over two episodes we’ve seen a motel standoff, an earthquake, the paralyzing of a major character, and a knowing gaze by John at a half-built, Devil’s Tower-like circular structure) is of little concern to me so long as Milch maintains his rock-solid sense of milieu. When all the prophecies are said and done, I know I’ll return to John from Cincinnati for its ellipses, for those moments when the narrative momentum slows to a crawl so that the day-to-day human drama takes precedence. When Cissy halts an argument with Mitch by teasing about “the healing powers of sex” (with this role, the striking, sun-baked De Mornay achieves a revelatory resurgence akin to Jeanne Tripplehorn on Big Love); when Shaun silently prepares for a surfing competition while countless mini-dramas unfold around him; when Bill ambles nervously down a hospital hallway, his hand gently patting his jacket pocket while Dr. Michael Smith (Garret Dillahunt) looks at him suspiciously, I feel prepared to jump the gun and call John from Cincinnati one for the ages. In a more tempered state, perhaps brought on by a sucker punch from Imperial Beach’s resident drug dealer Steady Freddy Lopez (Dayton Callie), I offer more qualified, though no less passionate praise. Wherever we go from here (my own suspicion: a perhaps intentional absence of the big picture closure so demanded, yet rarely ever attained, by the barbarians at the gate), David Milch has once again given us something worth discussing and cherishing.
Keith Uhlich is managing editor of The House Next Door and a contributor to various print and online publications.