TV: John from Cincinnati

Like most of the universe, I missed the train on John from Cincinnati, a one-season failure from co-creators Kem Nunn and Deadwood mastermind David Milch. But I’ve always been curious about it, since Milch’s authorial voice is nothing if not interesting; I figured there must be something about it worth investigating. There is, but ultimately it earns its notoriously dismal reputation.

John from Cincinnati is set in the oceanside town of Imperial Beach, a suburb of San Diego near the U.S.-Mexico border. It follows a multigenerational family of surfing enthusiasts, the Yosts. Mitch (Bruce Greenwood) is a surfing legend who blew out his knee; his intense, temperamental wife is Cissy (Rebecca De Mornay); his son Butchie (Brian Van Holt) is the heir apparent whose celebrity led him down the dark path of drug addiction; and Butchie’s son Shaun (Greyson Fletcher) is a laid-back, disaffected prodigy just starting to come into his own. Shaun has garnered the interest of a sleazy surfing promoter named Linc Stark (Luke Perry), whose negative influence on Butchie years earlier cast a long shadow over the family. Coinciding with Linc’s reappearance, though, is the mysterious arrival of “John Monad” (Austin Nichols), an autistic-seeming oddball who literally materializes out of thin air to weave himself into the tapestry of the Yosts’ lives. With a vocabulary limited to words he hears other people speak, John quickly ingratiates himself with numerous locals. He seems harmless, but his arrival seems connected to a number of miraculous occurrences, disrupting the community.

No question about it: John from Cincinnati isn’t a good show. But it isn’t all bad. An inventive curiosity, it takes a clever, intriguing idea and executes it horribly, tragically misusing a large, capable cast. The elevator pitch might have been something like this: what if a Christ figure shows up in SoCal surf town and starts causing miracles? It’s an idea that might have led to any number of interpretations, but in the hands of surf noir novelist Nunn and perverse TV auteur Milch, it leads to an unfocused, grimy affair that quickly squanders its early mystique. Milch’s stagy, tongue-twisting poetry has an uneven history; it worked wonders on Deadwood, while proving by turns electrifying and confounding in NYPD Blue. Here, it nearly succeeds initially, rendering Imperial Beach quirky enough for someone like John to believably integrate, which he does in unlikely but charming fashion. There’s also a solid speculative mystery hook as supernatural events create awe, conflict, and narrative energy for the many characters. For a few episodes, it looks like a show with a plan, with Milch’s odd ear for dialogue giving it a unique ambience.

Sadly, it runs out of ideas very quickly, devolving into a string of meandering, talky episodes that rely on overwrought conversation to hold interest. Deadwood had enough plot coherence to make this riveting, but John from Cincinnati doesn’t know what to do with itself. Instead, the characters just ricochet from one dingy set to the next, squabbling and confusing each other. One such stage is the dilapidated motel where Butchie lives, which has been purchased by an eccentric, traumatized surfing enthusiast named Barry (Matt Winston). Orbiting this area are local oddballs like lawyer Meyer Dickstein (Willie Garson), hotel manager Ramon (Luis Guzmán), Shaun’s “born-again” doctor Michael Smith (Garret Dillahunt), and a pair of out-of-left-field drug dealers from Hawaii (Dayton Callie and Paul Ben-Victor). This location showcases Milch at his Milchiest, the characters conversing in a baffling melange of borderline non sequiturs. There’s scattershot humor in this, and plenty of scenery-chewing argument, but not much narrative coherence. Better is Ed O’Neill, who brings it as the avuncular Bill Jacks, a Yost family acquaintance whose slightly loopy ex-cop engages in inspired chats with his birds and dead loved ones. By and large, the actors are admirable, but one gets the sense while watching their monologues and interactions that the writers are throwing remixed turns of phrase at the actors, desperate to see what sticks. Even though the cast is laden with veterans of previous Milch projects, their delivery of his peculiar stream-of-conscious dialogue rarely generates the same magic that followed Al Swearengen and Andy Sipowicz around. In the end, a long, slow season leads to an anticlimactic ending.

It’s a failure, then, but an interesting one, which might have worked with less padding and/or a writers’ room more adept at leveraging the spec-fic tropes so central to the conflict. Glimmers of cleverness do manage to sneak through, which may have influenced followers. For example, Austin Nichols’ blank-slate catalyst is an amusing conceit of a character, possibly an antecedent of Dougie Jones on Twin Peaks: The Return. The run-down SoCal community charged with subtle, paradigm-shifting magic, might be a precusor to the delightful squalor of Lodge 49. But where those two shows had a firm grip on both their unconventional narratives and their speculative content, John from Cincinnati does not, feeling like a show that was awkwardly shot from first drafts, occasionally inspired but ultimately aimless.

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