So, here's why writer-producer David Milch hopped aboard the last stage leaving Deadwood. The man behind Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue has given up cowboys for surfers.
Shot and set in Imperial Beach, Milch's new John From Cincinnati will be a long, strange trip, if the first three episodes are any indication. Somewhere between a dysfunctional family drama and a universal metaphysical examination, the new 10-part series takes a look at a screwed-up surfing dynasty, their friends and neighbors and the titular character, who is most certainly not from Cincinnati.
Mitch Yost (Bruce Greenwood) is the patriarch, a bitter man whose legendary surfing career was cut short by a devastating knee injury. His son Butchie (Brian Van Holt), was even better than his old man until he developed a nasty smack habit. The two have a terminal relationship that spills over into their dealings with Shaun (Grayson Fletcher), Butchie's 13-year-old son, who lives with his grandparents and is well on his way to a surfing sponsorship, to the utter dismay of both of his father figures.
Everything's coming to a head, because Cissy (a terrific Rebecca De Mornay)-wife of Mitch, mother of Butchie-has signed off, giving Shaun permission to enter his first contest. John Monad (Austin Nichols) then enters the picture, just showing up on a beach one day. And that's when things start getting weird.
John isn't really slow-he's more of an otherworldly blank slate, an innocent parrot who has in his pocket whatever you want. It's likely not accidental that he winds up smack in the middle of the Yost family drama, though that might depend upon your definition of fate. But nothing's quite the same once John is in the picture. Mitch begins levitating. Butchie's monkey happily climbs off his back. Terrible injustices are solved in mysterious ways. No, John isn't from Cincinnati, or any other earthly city. Is he an alien? The Messiah? Some combination thereof?
The show's initials are 'J.C.,' and a monad is the smallest indivisible element in the universe. Either way, Nichols is mesmerizing as John, simple in the same way Peter Sellers was in Being There. When he tells you to 'See God,' something very strange occurs. Seriously, this is heavy stuff.
But after watching three episodes, I couldn't definitively say that I enjoyed John From Cincinnati, because it's hard to know what it's about. That said, it's certainly appealing-like a fringe religion or Dennis Kucinich-and I have enough faith in Milch to hope that at the very least, he knows what's going on. It has aspects that are terrific, such as the crackling, profane dialogue and a terrific supporting cast that includes Luis Guzman, Ed O'Neill, Luke Perry and several former Deadwood denizens. And there are some bits that feel half-baked or extraneous, quirky for the sake of quirk.
The question will be whether Milch, in the course of his 10 episodes, can surf his way to a unique sort of metaphysical television that is thoughtful, entertaining, and perhaps even meaningful. He's putting himself right in the dangerous barrel that is television, and there's always a good chance of a wipe out.
Either way, John From Cincinnati begs the questions: When the surfing alien messiah arrives, will you be ready?
John From Cincinnati airs Sundays on HBO.