HBO has promoted John from Cincinnati as “a new series from the producers of Deadwood,” but are these words of enticement or warning? The western show’s life support may have been pulled by the cable network, but its essence lives on—its unique rhythms and cadences of language reincarnated in this new surfing drama in ways that struggle for sense, or have yet to make any. Indeed, given the impressive turnaround other shows like Dexter have made in the past, there’s some hope that John from Cincinnati may find a way to justify its singularly flabbergasting, almost inscrutable eccentricity. Right now, creator David Milch isn’t being kind to anyone, especially himself, by playing it so aloofishly cool—showing off as if he were running on empty.
Milch has always been hot for specificity and John from Cincinnati is nothing if not truthful to the surfing lexicon of its California milieu. In episode two, surf-shop honey Kai (Keala Kennelly) leaves a message for Butchie (Brian Van Holt), telling him that his mother Cissy (Rebecca De Mornay) must have spiked Mitch’s (Bruce Greenwood) wheat germ for letting Butchie’s son, Shaun (Greyson Fletcher), compete in some surfing competition, before hanging up because she’s “hip-deep in customers” (really there’s only one other person in the room). But the gnarly nuance that shapes the show’s dialogue doesn’t deepen its characters, mostly friends and neighbors of Greenwood’s surfing legend, who thinks he has a brain tumor because he starts floating in the air—literally—one morning after hitting the waves.
Who is John from Cincinnati—angel, loon, rain man or K-Pax? He arrives from places unknown, hitching a ride from Jim Beaver’s Vietnam Joe before wafting into the Yost inner circle without objection from anyone, when everything he does and says should be sending up all sorts of red flags. (Only Ed O’Neill’s Bill Jacks raises hell, but if he smells a rat it’s only because he’s finally met someone on whatever wavelength he and his pet bird are riding.) John’s pockets are empty one moment, filled with money the next—like Jesus summoning fish and bread for the hungry. And when Shaun gets into an accident that leaves him with a broken neck and no brain function, the boy is predictably healed. It’s a miracle no one screams “hallelujah,” but is it because they don’t want to or because they have absolutely no sense of wonder?
More pressing: Why is John from Cincinnati even here? Probably to save the Yosts, but what they need saving from isn’t clear yet, not to mention why the audience should care. That the show is trying to coast on spiritual vibes doesn’t make it legitimately spiritual. The distance Milch keeps between himself and his characters is almost as troublesome as the distance they keep from themselves, as in Mitch’s son Butchie, a heroin addict and former surfing star himself, noticing his father’s floating but scarcely batting an eye. (It’s all, like, whatever man.) If John, whose outbursts suggest a form of alien code and whose amusing Pavlovian behavior includes pretending to “dump out” in a hospital toilet, feels like the most normal person here it’s because his ostensible alienness—like the Mexicans running across sand dunes in the first episode—almost needs no rationale. He’s just passing through, but what’s everyone else’s excuse?
Maybe the problem with John from Cincinnati is its miscalculated sense of center, like some botched noir foisting false attitude onto its audience with characters whose struggles do not suggest the pain felt by legitimate human lives so much as the braggadocio of writers with legitimate talent but at a loss for creative direction. The Deadwood-like rhythm of the editing is transfixing, but its in service of attention-grubbing writing without purpose or soul. Except for Fletcher, whose performance exudes more electrical activity when Shaun is on his deathbed, the performances are strikingly good (even O’Neill’s annoying turn is imposingly calibrated), but these actors are just playing types, and with the show’s larger picture still unseen, what can we possibly glean from the misadventures of the three hotel stooges played by Luis Guzmán, Willie Garson and Matt Winston, or Butchie’s drug dealer Freddie (Dayton Callie) grooving to Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman’s rendition of “Con Te Partirò” outside the hospital where his client tends to Shaun? Are they waiting for Godot? Are we?
Maybe there’s something in the water. John, after telling Kai he wants to “bone” her (he doesn’t really know the meaning of the word), says, “See God, Kai,” at which point everyone who’s come in contact with this strange man gets a scorching Super-8 headache. Kai, who passes out and only gets a burning sensation—like being trapped inside a furnace—in her nipple piercings, should be asking for answers. Instead she tells John to never do whatever it is he just did ever again. Maybe the big picture is coming, but don’t count on it anytime soon; without a sense of what is eating these characters, the necessary epiphany they need—like the show—is impossible. Why do these characters need to see God anyway? Maybe there’s nothing to them, but if they’re blocked, are they blocking themselves or is Milch cramping them with empty style?