Surf or Die
“John from Cincinnati” on HBO
Have you ever liked something simply because you were so confused by it that you felt like not liking it would expose you as a dumb person? “John from Cincinnati” isn’t quite like that. But it might as well be. I’ve reserved judgment on the new Sunday night HBO drama for at least the first couple episodes, trying to get a handle on it. I’m fairly confident now that I won’t ever get a sold grip on this thing. But I’m thinking I might like it. Even if I’m not quite sure why.
The show is the latest brainchild from creator David Milch, who gave us the rawboned Western series “Deadwood.” “John from Cincinnati” isn’t anything like “Deadwood.” It isn’t anything like anything else, really. I suppose you could call it Blue Crush crossed with “Twin Peaks.” That still wouldn’t be a very accurate description, but it’s about as close as you’re gonna get.
The plot of “John from Cincinnati” isn’t all that hard to suss out. It concentrates on three generations of a Southern California surfing dynasty. Mitch Yost (Bruce Greenwood, Thirteen Days) is a sports legend, embittered and full of self-loathing in the wake of a career-ending knee injury. His son, Butchie Yost (Brian Van Holt, “Threshold”), is doing his best to carry on dad’s legacy—the bad one—throwing his life away on drugs and self-destructive behavior. Butchie’s young son Shaun (newbie Grayson Fletcher), however, is a nice, quiet kid with an innocent love for the sport of surfing. He’s also, barely in his teens, on the verge of turning pro—something dad and granddad are terrified of.
Surrounding this dysfunctional trio is an odd cast of characters including Rebecca De Mornay (in a fierce comeback) as Mitch’s estranged wife, Ed O’Neill (“Married ... With Children”) as a bird-collecting ex-cop and Austin Nichols (“Surface”) as a mysterious naif named John (he of the title) who wanders into the scene oblivious of ... well, pretty much everything. Like Peter Sellers in Being There, John only seems capable of repeating what others around him say and do. He is, however, blessed with the ability to pull whatever he wants from his pockets, and on the few occasions he does spout original dialogue, it is full of apocalyptic portent. (“The end is near,” being a favorite.)
And then, of course, there are the random miracles floating around (literally in some cases). Mitch seems to have the random ability to levitate, and Shaun is at the center of several life-and-death impossibilities. What are we, exactly, to make of this? At this point it’s hard to guess.
Milch has infused “John from Cincinnati” with a gritty, unglamorous realism that depicts the surfing world in perhaps its most realistic fictional light. On the other hand, he’s surrounded that with an inscrutable layer of biblical/mystical/New Age strangeness that may or may not be leading anywhere profound. Still, until it drowns or takes me to shore, I’m willing to ride this summer wave.
“John from Cincinnati” airs every Sunday at 10 p.m. on HBO.