Friday, June 22, 2007

TV REVIEW: John From Cincinnati

David Milch, the talent behind the late, lamented and brilliant HBO western Deadwood, returns to television with the disappointing John From Cincinnati, an often-intriguing but ultimately self-indulgent dramatic series that exhausts and baffles more frequently than it entertains.

Set at Imperial Beach, California, John from Cincinnati is the story of three generations in one dysfunctional, surfing family: The Yosts. There's Mitch Yost (Bruce Greenwood), a Surfer God who injured his knee many years ago and - with much bitterness - had to leave the sport. Then there's Mitch's son, Butchie (Threshold's Brian Van Holt), who revolutionized surfing, but had to leave the sport - with much bitterness - because of his bad boy ways, namely a heroin addiction. And finally, there's Butchie's son, Shaun (Greyson Fletcher), who is now a monosyllabic teenager and just starting his surfing career. However, he is badly injured during a competition at Huntington in episode 2 ("His Visit: Day 2.") Bitterness, we assume, to follow...

My first question: doesn't anything good or happy occur in the world of surfing? Apparently not.

Anyway, Mitch is married to one hot grandma, Cissy, played with energy by Rebecca De Mornay. She is tired of Mitch's bitching yet enabling at the same time. Still, at least Cissy demonstrates more humanity than her husband. Which is a blessing among the tedium.

Other regulars on the series include a troupe of good actors stuck in baffling, nonsensical and ultimately irrelevant supporting roles. Luiz Guzman plays motel manager Ramon and Willie Garson plays attorney Meyer Dickstein. They're two guys who hang out at the run-down El Camino Motel - where Butchie lives - and, like the proverbial Greek chorus comment on the action. Then there's the prone-to-anger slightly off-kilter Bill, played by Ed O'Neill, a friend of the Yosts, plus a "shark" in the world of professional surfing, Luke Perry's Linc Stark...who wants to sign-up Shaun.

Finally, there's that titular stranger in this not-terribly compelling circle, an innocent fellow named John Monad (Austin Nichols). He miraculously shows up one day, spouting wisdom like "The End is Near," and then intersects with the Yost family; Butchie in particular. He asks him repeatedly: "What do you want, Butchie?"

John, we soon learn, apparently possesses magic pants pockets. Yep, you read that right. Anything he needs - credit cards, cash, cell phones - just miraculously appear in his pockets when required. But this gag is nothing compared to John's quickly-grown-tiresome "stranger in a strange land" routine, which requires the young man to spout non-sequiturs and repeat the words of others, ad nauseum, ad infinitum. This is supposed to be funny and spiritual and meaningful, but the John character feels derivative; like a hunky hybrid of Dustin Hoffman's Rain Man routine and the Peter Sellers' shtick from Being There.

While John Monad - a Christ figure with miraculous powers - wanders about Imperial Beach with with the debauched Butchie, learning how to "dump out" (use a toilet...) and so forth, Mitch begins to sporadically levitate. Yep, you read that right too. On a couple of occasions, he finds himself hovering a few inches in the air. At first, he fears he has a brain tumor, but Butchie actually sees the miracle occur too, and confirms the levitation. Not that anybody seems to care, or make much note of the amazing event. "Just another day at the beach..." as one character notes.

The most impressive aspect of John From Cincinnati may just be the opening montage of ocean waves and surfing footage that looks culled from that classic, The Endless Summer. This montage establishes a 1970s kind of vibe, down to the presentation of the title in distinctive 1970s lettering, but - like so much of the show - even that's a blind alley. What's with the old surfing footage? Does it actually mean anything? Or is it, like the levitation, the magic pockets and other idiosyncrasies, merely an affectation?

At this point, it's difficult to tell, frankly. The two episodes that have aired thus far on HBO are lugubriously paced. Worse, many of the characters tend to scream, curse and swear at each other throughout the installments. Which wouldn't be bad, necessarily, except the shouting is supposed to be funny when in fact it's just downright monotonous. Also troubling is the fact that most of the characters aren't very likable, or even, really, tolerable. Mitch Yost, played by the great Bruce Greenwood, is a thoroughly unpleasant, unhappy individual (given to rumbling sour grapes comments such as "all my fans are in retirement homes.") Even sex with Grandma - the ever-hot Rebecca De Mornay - fails to rouse Mitch out of a self-centered stupor.

The much ballyhooed "spirituality" of John From Cincinnati at this point feels contrived, preposterous and pretentious. It plays awkwardly, like a deus ex machina; present more for plot convenience than any genuine sense of "belief" in a higher order. Not that the characters in this drama would notice Jesus Christ in their midst anyway. They're too self-involved, too arrogant, too unpleasant to look beyond their own petty problems and concerns.

Perhaps that's the point of the series, yet it seems a shame to bring a messiah down to Earth just to hitch him to a surfer-dude; a waste to land a savior in Imperial Beach if all he's doing is taking dumps and catching waves.

You get the feeling watching this disappointing drama unfold that John isn't the only one taking a dump.


  1. Anonymous6:20 PM

    You have to admit that many of these HBO shows take a while to develop. I remember David Simon, speaking of his show the Wire, compared it to a visual novel. He noted that in the first couple of chapters of Moby Dick you don’t meet the whale or Ahab or go aboard the pequod, you just follow Ishmael into an inn where he finds out he has to room with some tattooed character. Cincinnati is just in its first chapter. You have to assume that the creator of Deadwood has something interesting devolving here. At least I hope so, because HBO is looking a little lean lately.


  2. Anonymous10:34 AM

    I was much more disappointed with this review than I was the show. It is taking some time for the show's momentum to pick up, but I liked the show and hope it gets a chance. As a fan of yours, I was disappointed to come to this site and see that you had ripped it to such an extent with so exposure, telling me how I feel when I watch it. I didn't feel at all like you said I would. And you poked fun at the odd things that are going on -- don't you remember some of the odd cheesy things that go on in The House Between? I'm confused as to why you've made such judgments... but I guess it's normal for "every day tv watchers" to disagree with the critics.

  3. Dear Anonymous,

    Thank you for writing, and for being a fan. I appreciate it.

    I hope you understand, I never said what you would feel when watching John From Cincinnati. I never said "don't watch it." I just said I didn't like it. Obviously, you've done the correct thing: made your own assessment based on your own feelings. As you say, people aren't always going to agree about these things.

    But I am thrilled with your comparison to The House Between. John From Cincinnati is a series on a premium cable station that costs (conservatively) 10,000 times per episode what my show does! And they get 5 times as long to make each episode. With a crew, literally of hundreds. So, I do thank you for making the comparison.

    All my best,