We Review John from Cincinnati, David Milch’s Metaphysical Surf Odyssey

Let’s be clear from the get go — John from Cincinnati probably isn’t for most people. I liked it, despite its many, many flaws, but it’s pretentious, willfully weird, and hides its shakiness and lack of direction under opaque philosophical mumbo jumbo. It’s also frequently brilliant and occasionally transcendent TV, powered by David Milch’s trademark Shakespearean (or, more accurately, Shakespearean-by-way-of-Melville) dialog and a stellar ensemble cast, including Ed O’Neill, Rebecca De Mornay, Luis Guzman, and Bruce Greenwood.

So, what’s it about? Here’s Milch on Craig Ferguson, back in 2007 when the show debuted on HBO (right after the series finale of The Sopranos, a spot that probably helped to kill it at birth)—

If you don’t feel like watching the segment (and, if so, why not? –Milch is fascinating), here’s the takeaway: “I don’t know what it’s about…I don’t know the bottom line. But, uh, if God were trying to reach out to us, right, and if he felt a certain urgency about it, that’s what it’s about. And if God were trying to reach out to us and teach us something about the deepest nature of man, uh, he might use some drugged out surfers.”

Those drugged out surfers are the Yosts, a clan that takes its dysfunction three generations deep. Mitch Yost (Bruce Greenwood) is the young grandfather, a one-time surf star who retreats to his tree house after a bad knee injury. He and his wife Cissy (De Mornay) raise their grandson Shaun, a quiet and centered boy of 15 whose surfing career is just now emerging—much to the chagrin of Mitch. You see, Bruce and Cissy kind of fucked up with their only child, Shaun’s dad Butchie, a one time bad-boy superstar of the surf circuit who’s since degenerated into heroin addiction and alcoholism, living in a dumpster of a hotel, and barely seeing his son. Multimillionaire surf promoter Linc Stark (Luke Perry) is partly to blame for Butchie’s fate, and now he wants to sign Shaun to his company.

Against this backdrop of familial toil, a stranger — John from Cincinnati (uh, JC, if you will) arrives. John is seemingly childlike and naïve; he parrots back the words that others say to him and seems incapable of answering questions directly. He also possesses strange powers, powers that unfold throughout the series’s ten episodes and extend into the bizarre community of Imperial Beach. There are the Yosts themselves—Mitch begins levitating, Shaun comes back from the dead, and Butchie no longer craves dope—but J of C’s powers also influence those in the Yosts’ circle, like ex-detective, Bill Jacks, who fights the despair at losing his dead wife by communicating telepathically with a parrot. Jacks is played by Ed O’Neill in a performance that deserves something better than an Emmy or whatever bullshit they give actors for TV series. Ed O’Neill + David Milch = fucking gold. Seriously. Here’s five seconds of Ed O’Neill’s Bill Jacks, context unimportant—-

Jacks is the highlight of a strange circle of weirdos and grotesques that elliptically orbit the Yosts, including a number of ringers from Milch’s Deadwood (Dayton Callie, Paula Malcolmson, and Garret Dillahunt) as well as other fantastic character actors like Guzman, Paul Ben-Victor, and Willie Garson. Over nine days,  J of C enters into the lives of these characters, transforming their dysfunction into a more unified, if still unstable community. This was the theme of Milch’s Deadwood, only in JfC it’s writ large and bold, if not obviously apparent.

Where Deadwood took a cold hard look at capitalism and our grand national myths, JfC explores the miraculous in the everyday. What would happen if we witnessed miracles? Could we credit them? Could we credit ourselves to understand them, or to even accept them—could we allow ourselves to be transformed by them? This is the dramatic thrust of JfC. The series is not so much about interpretation, then—it is not simply a reworking of the New Testament set in Southern California—rather it is a TV show about witnessing, what it would mean to see a miracle.

To this end, there are many, many scenes of characters witnessing and reacting to events that affect other characters in JfC. In any other world, such witnesses might be surrogates for the audience, allowing the producers to communicate their vision and meaning, but in JfC, witnessing is not a passive process, or even a matter of voyeurism: witnessing is just as important as the event that is witnessed; indeed, witnessing is what allows the event that is witnessed some measure of phenomenological reality. This is no small thing when set against the miraculous, against what our rational, scientific minds have told us to resist.

Because John from Cincinnati traffics in the inexplicable, it was bound to alienate its audience. The show was cancelled after one ten-episode run, and there’s a sense in the later episodes that the producers knew they would have to wrap up too much business without enough time. Thus: clunky exposition; new characters who show up for no reason and then disappear for no reason; major characters explained away with a simple voice over line or two; etc., etc., etc.

All of this is only frustrating though if one is seeking an explanation from JfC, when I think what the show is really offering is a view to a view of the inexplicable, to what it is to witness what we are told we cannot rationally witness. Like Twin Peaks, to which it bears considerable comparison, JfC is a study in dialog, mood, tone, and characterization. Those searching for story will likely be disappointed. That isn’t to say that JfC doesn’t have a good story—I think it does—but it hardly gels at the end. To put it another way, JfC lacks the central, galvanizing vision of Deadwood or other HBO shows like The Wire and Rome. Still, I think that fans of Milch’s dialog could hardly be disappointed with JfC, and the cast is marvelous (particularly Ed O’Neill). I’ll end by sharing what is likely the standout scene of JfC, an esoteric climax of sort from the sixth episode. It’s probably a riff on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount—or maybe not—I don’t really want to analyze or interpret or even praise here—but it is a wonderful moment where Milch shows how community might happen. Recommended.

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