"Theres a lot of souls" - Reflections on John from Cincinnati
- "John from Cincinnati" is the story of the Yost family, a dynasty of surfers gone somewhat to seed in a small town in Southern California; and their encounter with John Monad, a mysterious stranger with unexplained powers who, it emerges, may or may not be the new Messiah. Along the way it also takes in a couple of Hawaiian hoods, the founder of a surfwear company, a lottery winner who buys a dingy motel and a Doctor disillusioned by his experience of a miracle. It was created by David Milch and Kem Nunn for HBO, who cancelled it after a single, unsuccessful season.
- The credit sequence is beautiful. Right from the first shot, where we follow a bubble from beneath as it breaks for the surface of an azure ocean. Grainy vintage surfing footage of the golden age of surfing is edited together for maximum effect, and together with Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros laid back shanty "Johnny Appleseed", it sets the tone immediately - elegiac, nostalgic yet suffused with the rapture of surfing. Especially great: the boldness of the title, held back until tight at the end of the sequence, after almost all the credits have passed. And then: huge lettering against those blue waves.
- Bruce Greenwood is always great. Always. He possesses a certain sourness; as if he is bitter about the passing of what were once obviously a sort of dashing matinee idol's good looks. It makes him great in roles where he plays up jealousy, rivalry, where he is up against a less complex sort of masculinity. But he does have those good looks, the suggestion of inner nobility. He has played JFK, after all. He is perfect as Mitch Yost, patriarch of the shows central family, the Yosts; fallen Golden Boy. A busted knee destroyed his own (now legendary) surfing career, and he is furious about his son's fall into drug addiction and fiercely protective of his grandson. He surfs alone, for the love and purity of it, conflicted about so much in his life, stubborn, principled, angry, a bit pompous. The scenes where he is tempted by the nostalgic adoration of a young "fan" are beautifully played. His amusement and suspicion, and the way his vanity allows him to fall for it.
- David Milch's dialogue is unlike anything else I've ever heard. Complex, rambling, tangential, purple, articulate...it can be hard to divine his characters central point, such is the effusive nature of their monologues. Soliloquays, really, is a more accurate word. And they all speak differently - the dialogue is obviously Milch's, but they have distinctive rhythms and patterns, vocal tics and riffs. John's parrot-like recording and playback is used hilariously, his timing always perfect. Even when we witness a Stinkweed corporate retreat of sorts, the jargon-loaded shoptalk sounds like Milch-speak - semi-abstract, flat verse, its meaning elusive.
- Some of John's parrot-speak: "I'm gonna bone her and then break her jaw." "Stare me down? Stare me DOWN?" "I don't know Butchie instead."
- Luke Perry, redeemed. What is it Milch sees in aging, former hearthrobs? Ian McShane in Deadwood, Greenwood and Perry here? He sees depth, and he brings it out. In episode Seven, another familiar face had me furiously racking my brain for where I knew him from. That faded pretty boy look, stubble and longish hair made it difficult. Then it came to me - he was Zack, the lead character in "Saved By the Bell". His name is Mark-Paul Gosselaar, most recently seen (by me, at any rate) in "NYPD Blue" a few years back. Milch gives him a couple of intense scenes with Perry, as if he's making some point. In 20 years, expect Zac Efron in a gritty cop drama created by Milch.
- What is the show about? Its pacing is so relaxed it takes 5 episodes before that begins to come into focus. Which is probably what doomed "John from Cincinnati" in the States. It defies categorisation. Its comic, dramatic, yes. A spiritual parable? Yes. Family drama? Yep. Surf-noir? In parts, sure. It expands as it progresses, too, with important new characters emerging as late as the sixth episode. As in Deadwood, the comedy slides in when least expected. Surrealism, too, is always a hard sell. It frightens people. Here there is surrealism aplenty.
- What really doomed it, however, is that it is not "Deadwood". The perception amongst the fans of that show is that Milch killed it in his haste to start on this show. "Deadwood" fans are devout. I get it. Much as I loved "John from Cincinnati", I would much rather have seen another Season of "deadwood". Or even one of those tv movies rumoured at one point...
- The sixth episode, which climaxes in the extraordinary, semi-impenetrable communal dream sequence when John addresses most of the cast in a great rolling monologue heavy on symbolism and thematic pointers, is the make-or-break moment. You'll either love it or hate it. Nothing else on tv has ever been remotely like it.
- Those themes. Commerce as a new religion, the internet as a sort of bible, with marketing, consumerism and faith all somewhere in the mix...this may be the most dense television series I've ever seen, in terms of allusions and suggestion. I have the suspicion that a second viewing would make so much more sense. Yet it doesn't wholly work. Milch and Nunn's world is perhaps the wrong shape for the issues they wish to address - too knotty and awkward in its mix of tribes and genres, too clumsy in its sometime symbolism. The ambition, though, is breathtaking. To even attempt such a massive statement. Milch was obviously on a creative high after the slam-dunk success of Deadwood.
- Luis Guzman!
- It accords surfing an incredible respect. The show shuts up - a rare pause in the Milch-babble - and bears witness to the beauty of figures cutting across waves. Its always presented as a transcendent activity. In episodes 8 and 9, a newly invigorated Butchie surfs alone, an acknowledgement of his recovery. And the show is silent in a sort of awe. All we hear is the endless roar of the ocean, all we see is him against the horizon.
- Rebecca De Mornay. Older, a kind of fragility having entered into her beauty, is still absolutely smoking hot. And a cracking actress. There was always something fearsome about her, she seemed like a lioness. Ferociously willful and unbending. Her most famous roles - in "The Hand that Rocks the Cradle" and "Risky Business" - both make use of this quality to a certain extent. Here Milch makes her the ballbuster of ballbusters, her self-hatred vented onto the rest of the world in bitter, choked little eruptions. But her vulnerability is plain, her terror and sorrow. She wears this desolate expression when she isn't breathing fire. There is a moment late on when she looks at her seemingly redeemed, recovering son with a mixture of love and pain and bafflement that is just beautiful. Why was she never quite a major star?
- It may just be the most original show in the last half-decade of TV. Its indescribable. Its lack of a simple, tie-everything-up-neatly ending just makes it the kind of work you can endlessly theorise and argue over. Which is a good, increasingly rare thing.
That credit sequence: