John From Cincinnati: Season One
While most of the time when a creative team gathers to brainstorm a new television series they try to come up with something that will have the broadest appeal to the audience. Mass marketing is vital to getting the ratings that always translate to the all important sponsorship dollars. Because of this the regular broadcast networks are extremely limited to the subject matter they can explore in a regular TV show. Top tier cable networks like HBO have less restrictions and therefore greater freedom when the produce a series. Even they have to answer to men concerned with the numbers of viewers so if a series is innovative but doesn’t get the ratings it can die early. This is the case for ‘John from Cincinnati’. It was one of the most unique, well written, directed and acted series in many years but it is gone after a single season. At least HBO is true to their fan base and now has released this novel series to DVD. One thing for sure there are no other series that this one could be likened to, it was one of a king. The show was from the creative and strange mind of David Milch who came out with another HBO series killed off before its time ‘Deadwood’ and ‘NYPD: Blue’. This time around he was joined by co-creator Kem Nunn, novelist and surfer. Nunn on his own create the new genre variation referred to as ‘Surf-Noir’. This was a perfect collaboration but the world wasn’t ready for them.
‘John from Cincinnati’ is set in Imperial Beach, a small surfing community in Southern California not far from the Mexican border. The series concentrates on the royal family of surfers, the Yosts. Patriarch Mitch (Bruce Greenwood) was one of the old school surfing phenomena back in the day. Now, due in part to a leg injury he has retired from the sport. He now runs a surf shop in the area with his wife Cissy (Rebecca De Mornay). Actually they usually hang out at home and argue while the shop is managed by their employee and family friend Kia (Keala Kennelly). She used to date Cissy and Mitch’s son Butchie (Brian Van Holt) who was a famous surfer at one time. Butchie’s downfall in the sport was his success and he became addicted to narcotics. Fourteen years ago he had a son, Shaun (Greyson Fletcher) with a popular porn star Tina Blake (Chandra West). Between the pornography and the drug use Cissy and Mitch have taken custody of Shaun and have been raising him. Like his father and grandfather Shaun is a natural surfer with a unique, almost groundbreaking style and form. He wants to make it as a professional surfer but his grandparents don’t want to watch history repeat it self. For Mitch Surfing should not be commercialized, he believes that it is not just a sport but something spiritual. Linc Stark (Luke Perry) is the owner of a successful surf merchandizing company, ‘Stinkweed’. The prospect of having a third generation Yost representing their products is something that Linc has to have. He brings in a beautiful aspiring film maker, Cass (Emily Rose) is sent by Linc to seduce Mitch and break him and Cissy up. This way it may be possible to sign Shaun. This is only one part of the cast and the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the stories. We haven’t even gotten to the titular character yet.
Butchie is crashing at a broken down, deserted Snug Harbor Motel. It is managed by Ramon Gaviota (Luis Guzmán) who lives on the premises. The motel was just purchased by Barry Cunningham (Matt Winston) a former resident of the area, recent lottery winner a victim of sexual abuse. Butchie used to beat him up in high school. His lawyer and best friend of Ramon is a wannabe surfer Meyer Dickstein (Willie Garson). One day this motley group meets a very strange man, John Monad (Austin Nichols) who claims to hail from Cincinnati. He wants to learn how to surf but that is far from his real purpose there. John also comes into contact with the other strange inhabitants of the community. Viet Nam Joe (Jim Beaver) grows and uses pot, runs people to Mexico and was the first to pick up John on the road. Steady Freddie Lopez (Dayton Callie) is a drug dealer from Hawaii who initially goes to California to collect money from Butchie. His toady is Palaka (Paul Ben-Victor) who is a low level dealer. Looking over the family is a old time friend, Bill Jacks (Ed O'Neill) a former police officer who is a widower that collects parrots and very close and protective to Shaun. When Shaun enters his first contest he breaks his neck and is expected to die. A miracle occurs concerning John and one of Bill’s parrots, Zippy and Shaun completely recovers. This amazes his doctor, Michael Smith (Garret Dillahunt) who quits his position at the hospital to be closer to the Yosts. One more thing, since John has been around Mitch has found unexplainably floating into the air. Again, this doesn’t come close to what happens in this series. The level of complexity is incredible. This goes beyond the typical water cooler type of series where you talk about an episode the next day. You needed to put aside some time to discuss and analyze the minute details of each episode.
With the notable exception of day two of John’s visit each episode covers one day in the lives of this eclectic group of very troubled and disturbed people. Within each episode and to a larger extent the whole series the flow is like waves on the beach, perfect for the surfing motif. The story moves along slowly at times with a big wave of exposition coming along at unexpected moments. John is a mysterious figure in the community. No one really knows much of anything about him but when he is around strange and often wonderful things happen. First he seems to have pockets that can produce anything that he needs from $50 to a driver’s license. He speaks mostly by parroting back what was said to him, occasionally with a little twist. He has a purpose but no one, including the audience knows what it might be. Even after the last episode the purpose of John is only partially explained. He can also bi-locate, apparently able to be in two locations at once. He might be next to a person and not seen. He is wise beyond imagination yet childlike. John is the definition of an enigma.
David Milch is one of the most creative people associated with television ever. That is a sweeping statement but absolutely true. He populated this beachfront world with many of the excellent actors he used in ‘Deadwood’ so the cast and crew went into this project already used to working with each other. He also tapped into the surfing community not only with his co-creator but surfers as actors. The prime example of this would be Keala Kennelly, one of the top rated women surfers in the world. As with any Milch project the dialogue is all important. This is not a series that can be watched in a casual manner. You have to listen to each word; every inflection to even start to understand what is going on. Because of this ‘John’ is not an easy series; it takes more dedication than just about anything that has ever been on TV to truly enjoy.
Every single character in this series is draw with exacting detail. There are no broad strokes of the brush used here only microscopic attention to the smallest of maters. Mitch is a man who is torn between his love of his family and surfing. He can no longer compete because of his enjoy but he never feels as alive as when he is on top of a wave. His relationship with Cissy is turbulent. They have horrible fights and then make up. It doesn’t matter which direction things go as long as there is passion. John is the perfect catalyst; changing those he comes into contact with but never showing any change in his own personality. He is there to do his father’s work, nothing more. This brings up the spiritual aspects of the series. The question that the audience has about John include whether he is the son of God or some angelic messenger.
HBO can almost be forgiven for canceling this series since they have brought it out on DVD. You really have to study this series to get it. Now on DVD you can watch again and again and each time you will take away something different.