"God moves in a mysterious way ..." (William Cowper, "Light Shining Out of Darkness")
"He who experiences the unity of life sees his own Self in all beings and all beings in his own Self, and looks on everything with an impartial eye." (Buddha)
"But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things -- and the things that are not -- to nullify the things that are so that no one may boast before him." (I Corinthians 1: 27-29)
"If God were trying to reach out to us, and teach us something, the deepest nature of matter, he might use some drugged-out surfers." (David Milch)
"There's a starman waiting in the sky/He'd like to come and meet us/But he thinks he'd blow our minds ..." (David Bowie, "Starman")
"Mitch Yost should get back in the game." (John Monad, John from Cincinnati)
What a strange, sad, wonderful work of art. David Milch and "surf noir" author Kem Nunn's John from Cincinnati is a fascinating tangle of ideas and intentions, as far removed as one can get from the grungy frontier drama of Milch's late, lamented "Deadwood." The riot of quotations that opens this review speaks to the ambition and the density of what Milch is attempting (it's telling that not even its creator can point to precisely what the show's about); it's rooted in a number of mythologies, religions and emotions, somehow staying aloft despite all that bubbles beneath the surface.
The (rightful) hue and cry over the premature cancellation of "Deadwood" continued well into the series premiere of John from Cincinnati, unveiled on the heels of the controversial finale for David Chase's celebrated "The Sopranos." I'll admit I watched the premiere mainly out of curiosity, wondering what stories could've possibly pulled Milch away from the grimy environs of Deadwood. What I saw struck me as simultaneously pretentious and pedestrian; a domestic drama dressed up as apocalyptic what-if?
I didn't stick around long -- and neither did many others, as evidenced by the show's weekly low ratings, HBO's refusal to pick up the series for a second season and a dizzying range of critical reaction from bewilderment to tentative appreciation. Having now viewed all 10 episodes (the complete series) in a matter of days, I can only offer a mea culpa to Milch and company -- this is high-wire television, a work that's maddening and moving in equal measure and a sort of shotgun-blast art that you can't shake off. I'll be the first to say I don't even know half of what Milch and his team of writers were attempting to convey with this bracing bit of TV, but bravo to them and to HBO for allowing these folks to take such a balls-out swing for the fences.
However, John from Cincinnati never gels. I spent these 10 episodes watching and waiting for something -- anything -- to happen, an event that justified getting to know these bitter, brittle people. While what transpires is interesting skewing towards peculiar, I'd argue that much of Milch's series simply gets lost in all the narrative opacity; you might connect with the individuals onscreen but the returns are diminishing.
The Yosts are practically the first family of surfing -- a dynasty spanning three generations that's crumbling on the inside, slowly self-destructing on the sunny shores of Imperial Beach, California. Patriarch Mitch Yost (Bruce Greenwood) was a legend until a knee injury sidelined him for good, driving him to discover a more spiritual way of life; his son Mitch "Butchie" Yost II (Brian Van Holt) revolutionized the sport with his trademarks "aerials," before copious drug abuse trashed his career and ravaged his relationships with family and friends. Butchie's 14-year-old son Shaun (newcomer Greyson Fletcher) is a rising star, more or less abandoned by his parents to be raised by Mitch and his iron-willed wife Cissy (Rebecca DeMornay).
Over the course of nine days, they and their eclectic circle of friends are transfixed and transformed by the mysterious John Monad (Austin Nichols), a man who strikes most as a mentally disabled mystic, only capable of repeating words and phrases but able to produce such wonders as a platinum credit card or a hunting knife out of thin air. The events that unfold over nine days range from the miraculous (Mitch levitates, Shaun comes back from the dead) to the merely wondrous (Butchie goes cold turkey, Cissy thaws towards Butchie's porn star ex-wife Tina), but they all come together to form something of a tapestry of human experience. John's cryptic phrases resonate through the show, forming a philosophical backbone that, for good or ill, isn't neatly resolved by the show's conclusion.
The cast, however, is fantastic and honestly, one of the chief reasons to seek out the show. From Greenwood, DeMornay, Van Holt, Luke Perry and Chandra West to the non-professional actors (Fletcher and Keala Kennelly), John from Cincinnati is, as was "Deadwood," a stunning showcase for actors (indeed, many "Deadwood" regulars pop up in roles big and small here).
There are detractors who call John from Cincinnati empty, self-indulgent and pointless and to be fair, that initial response is entirely understandable. This isn't "Deadwood" and Milch seems to be aiming for something much bigger than simple Sunday night entertainment. John from Cincinnati is art torn from the soul, not without its failings, but worth exploring for those who like their TV shows as far from "CSI" spin-offs as possible.
The complete series is spread across three discs, each housed in a slim digipak case which is tucked inside a slipcover that has its own, external slipcover (similar to the season sets for "Arrested Development").
Presented as originally broadcast, the entire series of John from Cincinnati arrives on DVD sporting a perfectly clean, vivid 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The episodes look immaculate throughout and any visual deficiencies -- lens flare, softness or high contrast -- are by design (particularly during the evocative opening credits sequence). These 10 episodes look about as solid as you could ask of a recently filmed production.
Most of John from Cincinnati's set pieces rely on dialogue, so the Dolby Digital 5.1 track only bursts to life during the handful of surfing sequences sprinkled throughout the show. The directional soundfield is lively (all crashing waves, speeding cars and gentle breezes) and the well-chosen soundtrack filters in unobtrusively. Optional French and Spanish Dolby 2.0 tracks are included, as are optional English, French and Spanish subtitles.
Milch contributes a pair of commentaries -- on the series premiere and on its finale -- but doesn't offer much of anything in the way of explanation (it's impressive that HBO allowed his vitriolic asides to stand on the finale commentary). Keep looking if you're in search of illumination. Those yack-tracks are on the first and third discs of the set and the only other bonus is found on the second disc, "Decoding John: The Making of a Dream Sequence," a 13 minute, 31 second featurette (presented in anamorphic widescreen) that explores the "visions" of various characters in the sixth episode -- and, sadly, gets more across in that time than Milch manages to convey in two hours' worth of commentary.
This is high-wire television, a work that's maddening and moving in equal measure that you can't shake off. I'll be the first to say I don't even know half of what co-creator David Milch and his team of writers were attempting to convey with this bracing bit of TV, but bravo to them and to HBO for allowing these folks to take such a balls-out swing for the fences. John from Cincinnati is art torn from the soul, not without its failings, but worth exploring for those who like their TV shows as far from "CSI" spin-offs as possible. Recommended.