John from Cincinnati

Rarely is a TV show the target of such mournful resentment as John from Cincinnati has been, since it is David Milch’s HBO follow-up series to the cancelled Deadwood. Despite numerous reports to the contrary, many fans of the Shakespearean Western are convinced that it would still be around if Milch had not pitched JFC and HBO had not eagerly picked it up. The truth – as attested by actors and crew – is quite different.

Milch allegedly pitched JFC with the understanding that he would have two shows at HBO. However, Deadwood’s demise had apparently been mooted for a while by executives, since it was by contractual necessity a co-production with Paramount, forcing HBO to watch chunks of the profits on a very expensive program with little re-selling potential go out the door. When the prospect of a new Milch show came up that was cheaper and all theirs, they jumped for it and canceled Deadwood. Actors have mentioned Milch’s fury when he informed them of their show’s about-face execution. Not wanting both of his projects to die, he continued with JFC and managed to snag a deal to film two Deadwood TV movies to wrap up the story. But as JFC premiered, HBO had still offered no word on a project that was supposed to commence filming right about now. Incidentally, today is HBO’s leg of the TV Critics Press Tour, so expect angered Deadwood supporters to try and squeeze some information out. Whether we get any is a different question.

So with critics and Deadwood fans, John from Cincinnati had a speed bump to overcome, combined with the pressure of premiering immediately after the finale of HBO’s signature show, The Sopranos, along with the internal tumult of HBO CEO and original programming pioneer Chris Albrecht, responsible for The Sopranos and all that came after it – including Deadwood and JFC itself – being let go in May after a very public arrest for assault. Five episodes in, the ratings and critical response have been middling, and many observers are eating crow. However, myself and many others insisted on walking into John from Cincinnati with an open mind, to give these new actors and story a chance. After all, this is a new work from David Milch, whom Deadwood has unquestionably proven to be one of the all-time TV greats. Plus, the exhilarating HBO promos made this look like an irresistible, perhaps even Twin Peaks-style ride, in experiential if not popular terms.

The result was a little more muted than expected. JFC is a modern ensemble drama set in Imperial Beach, a town on the border of California and Mexico known for its polluted beaches and illegal immigrant incursions. Three generations of the Yost family live there, and either are accomplished surfers or were. Patriarch Mitch (Bruce Greenwood) was a surfing legend until a major knee injury stalled his career, and wife Cissy (Rebecca DeMornay) is bitter about what their life has become. To compensate, she cultivates grandson Shaun’s (Greyson Fletcher) huge surfing talent with the hope of having him signed against the objections of Mitch, who doesn’t want a repeat of what happened to their son Butchie (Brian Van Holt), whose professional surfing career capsized due to heroin addiction, which Butchie is still in the thrall of. Shaun lives with Mitch and Cissy, who fight over whether to welcome the advances of surfing promoter Linc Stark (Luke Perry), who Mitch blames for Butchie’s fall from grace. Meanwhile, Ramon Gaviota (Luis Guzman) runs the dingy motel where Butchie lives, but discovers that the oddly mannered Barry Cunningham (Matt Winston) has bought the land, having returned to Imperial Beach to confront a traumatic event in his past.

Into this miasma walks John (Austin Nichols), an intellectually disabled but oddly determined young man who intersperses endless repetitions of what others say with such strange proclamations as “Mitch Yost should get back in the game” and “See God, Kai”. The locals react with confusion to his presence but nonetheless extend an olive branch, seemingly content just knowing that he is from Cincinnati while wondering how on Earth he is so wealthy. He – or at least his arrival in town – also precipitates odd supernatural occurrences, such as visions of friends in pain or, most pointedly, Mitch suddenly levitating, which has provided HBO with its central promotional image.

It’s a thick and strange recipe, one that reveals labeling the show as a surfing drama is fairly wrongheaded. Surfing is merely the background, which, instead of forcing the show into a specialist niche, allows it to discuss our relationship with nature, functioning as a metaphor for trying to harness it without taming it. The characters are very aware of the contrast between their happiness and contentment riding the waves, free of the ground, and the complexities of their morose lives on shore, but it doesn’t allow them to figure out a solution. But just as the show hints it may go down the worn-down narrative path of the visionary talent who can’t get the rest of his life together, the show ducks and weaves over and over until John from Cincinnati’s ultimate purpose is a riddle. Unlike even surreal and baffling shows like Twin Peaks and Carnivale, there is very little to latch on to in this show in terms of a premise – it’s not even portentous. It is as unknowable to us as the characters’ own lives are to them.

But that is not necessarily a bad thing. I will admit that episode five – the midway point of the season – became a chore at points because Milch’s steadfast refusal to even give us a peek at his hand was becoming frustrating. A narrative dedicated to mystery should not be judged by the speed and nature of the answers it gives, but the journey to them should still preferably not leave the viewer scratching their head as to why the questions are even there, or if they are there at all.

Taken scene by scene, JFC is still a rich experience. The high production values of Deadwood and all HBO shows are in full effect, with some beautiful camerawork, including unnerving grainy sequences for the visions that characters experience. Like Deadwood, this is quite a setbound show, and often feels even more like a stage play than its predecessor, with the same rich, Milchian dialogue rife with non-sequiturs that ultimately reveals its point at the end of an exchange rather than during it. But at times, Milch seems to still be in Deadwood mode, carrying that voice into a modern setting and the transition is not always comfortable. Whereas Deadwood’s lines worked their way up to the Shakespearean eloquence the series has become renowned for as the audience likewise became adjusted to its setting, John from Cincinnati lays it on too thick initially. Plus, the distance that a period piece automatically creates makes extravagant dialogue more plausible and the viewer can sink into the effect more naturally. These kinks may well even themselves out though.

Perhaps thanks to Deadwood’s renown, Milch has attracted a more star-studded cast for his sophomore HBO effort, but the performances are hit-and-miss, and perhaps through no fault of their own. Bruce Greenwood gives a very muted turn, which while welcome in Mitch’s calm, ‘wait-and-see’ attitude to his levitation, is preventing us from connecting with the figure that we are told towers over this status quo. The script do sideline him a little in these episodes, but since his levitation is one of the undeniable examples of how John has somehow changed things since his arrival, he will most likely be brought to the fore later in the season.

Rebecca DeMornay gives her best performance in a long time with her best role – it’s very emotionally bare and she rises to that. But in Cissy’s panicked protection of Shaun she’s only really been given one note to play: furious distress. Her anger recalls Robin Weigert’s Calamity Jane, but instead of her deep-seated but somehow amusing fury, Cissy’s is relentless and of-the-moment, so it grates a little.

Brian Van Holt moves past Butchie’s initially incessant obnoxiousness to find his twitchy vulnerability, and he’s certainly the most interesting and entertaining member of the Yost clan. The oft-described ‘Greek chorus’ at the motel is also one of JFC’s most promising components, particularly Matt Winston’s awkwardly elegant entrepreneur, although befitting their nickname they have remained permanently in the background in favour of the Yosts, who are over-exposed in proportion to how enjoyable their company has been. As motel manager Ramon, ubiquitous movie supporting player Luis Guzman is tragically wasted with some baffled mumbling that doesn’t properly exploit his talent. Ed O’Neill is sweetly compassionate as retired cop Bill Jacks, although his soliloquies to his birds are a painful reminder of a difficult conceit that Deadwood achieved so well but is less successful here, perhaps because the stakes are so much less apparent than when Ian McShane would be mulling his next course of action. Luke Perry fits in surprisingly well to this dysfunctional ensemble, and Deadwood vet Garret Dillahunt could end up the heart of the show as a shaken doctor who witnesses a miracle.

The acting newbies, professional surfers Greyson Fletcher and Keala Kennelly, are a mixed bag. Whereas Kennelly is very capable and holds her own, Fletcher hasn’t yet worked out how to make Shaun’s natural stoicism – perhaps also his own – appear to hide meaning as opposed to merely sounding wooden. Granted, he’s only a teenager doing his first acting, but in order for Milch to justify casting an amateur in a central role – the first five episodes largely centre on Shaun rather than the eponymous John – Fletcher will need to learn fast.

And then there’s John himself. Austin Nichols excels at occupying a strange area between overt mental disability and coy wisdom. John is almost impossible to read; even the words of others that he mimics could hold a revelatory or sinister import. Not centring the initial episodes on him is obviously the right call since John must be key to Milch’s larger ambitions, the first clue being right there in the title.

But that vision is largely inexplicable at this point, as virtually all critics have discussed and Milch no doubt revels in. At the midway point of the season, John from Cincinnati superficially seems to be an assemblage of scenes about a motley bunch of pained or eerily patient people, with the miracles that John and an unexpected other facilitate serving as triggers for contemplation or further anguish. As I hoped, Milch does far better at crafting credible responses to the apparent supernatural that are devoid of cliché than virtually every other TV narrative except Twin Peaks, a show that JFC initially resembled but now surpasses in thematic incomprehensibility, amazing as that seems.

Rather than exclamations of ‘my God’ and lengthy conversations of how crazy this all is, these characters are almost in denial that such events could have penetrated their depressingly earth-bound lives. It’s this freshness – along with faith that Milch has something up his sleeve (he’s talked about far grander themes than these episodes point to) – that will make me stick with JFC until season’s end, although the Yost-centric episode five was my first crisis of that faith – I nearly wanted to turn it off. It’s no Deadwood, as spoiled as that sounds, and it hasn’t yet had a coalescing event like Wild Bill’s pointless murder, which made that series click and become compulsively watchable.

But there is certainly ambition lurking inside. I just hope that it isn’t aimed even further into the recesses of Milch’s highly literate brain and instead out into the broader, existential, but very human mysteries that John from Cincinnati so clearly has on its mind.

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