“What is John From Cincinnati?” “Why does this show exist?” “What is it about?” I had these questions before I started watching the 2007 HBO series. But what makes the show special, for better or worse, is that I also had these questions during and after watching the show too. It’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a series about a fractured family in the LA surfing community whose lives are changed by the appearance of a stranger, the eponymous John from Cincinnati. JFC. Jesus Fucking Christ. It’s a religious or spiritual tale, or at least I think it is. The show ultimately becomes a better comedy than drama, and when it hits its stride a few episodes into its 10-episode run, it’s a beautifully bizarre series that almost transcends its problems.
Perhaps taking the prestige television penchant for morally ambiguous and unsavoury protagonists a step too far, the show features perhaps the most abrasive and instantly unlikable group of characters I’ve ever seen in a show. That’s the show’s biggest issue right from the start, holding everything else back. There’s just no emotional connection with anybody until the midpoint of the series. An emotional connection is not something that can just be presumed and treated as if it is there from the start, it has to be earned and shepherded. The series also suffers from hiring surfers for a couple of major roles instead of actors; for the scenes they are on the water they are fantastic but it’s not a decision that pays off when 95% of the time they are on land, blank-faced and, ironically, out of their depth.
Rebecca De Mornay, in her most memorable role since A Love of Two Brains, is the matriarch of the central Yost family – a family torn apart through injury, bitterness, absent parents, and even sexual abuse. The series not only revolves around the Yosts but also a range of supporting characters who orbit them and eventually grow into an extended family of sorts, all brought together by the mysterious and seemingly magical John. Except for Bruce Greenwood’s character who is billed as the lead but disappears for several episodes and the show benefits from his absence. Really, I thought the show didn’t hit its stride until Garret Dillahunt shows up as essentially an audience surrogate character obsessed and befuddled by everything happening. It’s a show were no one reacts the way you’d expect or speaks the way you’d expect. As it continues the series feels more like a David Lynch project than David Milch – a Californian offshoot of Twin Peaks.
It was creator David Milch that led me to John From Cincinnati. Instead of watching his phenomenal series Deadwood yet again, I thought I’d sample his follow-up. In some ways it feels similar to Deadwood. It has the same structure, each episode taking place over a single day, and, like Deadwood, it’s a story of a community being built, of disparate people having to come together. These include criminals and an ex-cop being brought together by John, realising what they have in common. Much of the action revolves around a rundown motel which always seems to attract every character for different reasons by the end of each episode. Yet it feels like Deadwood crossed with another HBO show: The Leftovers. Both include men who may or may not be Jesus and begin with a supernatural event that makes you question just how much of the show is supernatural in nature. What is divine intervention and what is mental illness?
Thankfully there are echoes of Deadwood’s tremendous dialogue throughout the show, although not as bountiful as that earlier series. Milch is a master of fusing the poetic with the profane, and has a truly unique voice in the industry. It makes little sense, much less sense than Deadwood, but characters again speak in a very fastidious way, which adds to the bizarre feel of the show. Ed O’Neill’s character has Shakespearean monologues to his pet birds, and the motel owner has fruity and proper dialogue that others struggle to dissect. The storylines and character reactions often befuddled me while watching the show but the dialogue was always engaging. A variety of Deadwood actors also appear, none better than Charlie Utter himself Dayton Callie who has the funniest line of the series, as a criminal unsuccessfully trying to show off how hardcore he is: “I’ve had more LSD than you’ve had Cheerios for breakfast. In a volcano!”
John appears as an essentially mentally disabled figure, only able to repeat speech he has heard back to characters, a human parrot, yet brings a sense of foreboding and potential enlightenment with him. His appearance is paired with instances of levitation, resurrection, talking animals, magic pockets, and astral projection. Yet bizarrely these are almost backgrounded with the focus being plotlines including the evils of corporate sponsorship, relationship strife, and creating a Myspace page for a young surfer. Why? What is the show trying to say? The answer almost bubbles to the surface on occasion but Milch buries it again, seemingly wanting to confound. As a mixture of Deadwood, The Leftovers, and Twin Peaks, this should be my favourite show and yet its puzzling nature doesn’t create intrigue or a fascinating dreamlike tone but often annoyance and questions of why the show even exists.
But when the show’s statement shines through it can be a thing of beauty. The show’s themes become clear, or as clear as Milch will allow them, during a brilliant shared dream sequence in the sixth episode and then again in the final moments of the finale. If there is a God or higher power, He has not forsaken us. However warped or twisted or broken we have become He will help, even the plight of a weird family of surfers. But we cannot begin to understand his ways for if He were a man, we would just be ants, leaving us scrambling for understanding. The show thrives on the dramatic and comedic dissonance of real life combined with the almighty. Surfing is presented as a religious and spiritual experience, a baptism of sorts, but there are also the realities of it that are humorous to pair with the holy, from the fake palm trees and tacky teak wood panelling of a surf shop to Jesus in a pair of Crocs.
The central theme of John uniting a struggling family, healing wounds, is strong enough to hold up the weirder moments that have fewer clear intentions. The series’ broad strokes can be followed but smaller scenes remain inscrutable, and the show clearly loves it. John From Cincinnati ends with the Yost family coming together, united, almost as new religious figures. It comments on commercialised religion in the 21st century, in the age of the Internet where a filmmaker is the new word bounder. It’s hopeful and cynical and above all confusing. I don’t fully understand it, yet as an atheist I’m fascinated by the attempt to say something profound. I still haven’t figured out how successful it is.
Fifteen years after it aired, John From Cincinnati is still the most puzzling show HBO has ever created. I enjoyed it. Or I think I did. Stripping away most of the show, as I’ve done in this article (there’s so much I haven’t mentioned, like the commentary on 9/11), it can seem a simple concept and idea. Yet it is presented in an extraordinarily messy way, which was perhaps the intention. It’s the messiness of life and relationships, something distinctly human reacting unexpectedly when touched by a divine force, if that is indeed what John is. So much is left unexplained, which, again, is likely part of the point. John saying “the end is near” turned out to be prophetic, not of a storyline within the show but the series’ cancellation by HBO after just one season. The first episode aired immediately after the finale of The Sopranos and the series would need real divine intervention to become anything more than a footnote on that night of television history. Yet the show still survives for audiences to discover and ponder “what is this show?” before, during, and even after watching it.
Have you any thoughts on John From Cincinnati? Let me know in the comments and be sure to geek out with me about TV, movies and video-games on Twitter @kylebrrtt.