Sunday, June 10, 2007

 

Some things I know, some things I don't know

By Edward Copeland
Chief among the things I don't know: What the hell is John From Cincinnati about and, based on the first three episodes, is this going to be a series that's worth the effort in the end? The new HBO series co-created by David Milch, the mastermind of the much-missed Deadwood, John From Cincinnati is an existential surfing dramedy. I trust that Milch and co-creator Kem Nunn have a destination in mind, but the wave hasn't lifted me high enough to see it yet.

I'll keep watching, because the series is so quirky and odd I'm curious to see if it starts to pay off, but I can't promise that my patience won't run out before its 10-episode run does. Bill Jacks, the retired cop played by Ed O'Neill (light years removed from Al Bundy), says at one point in an early episode that they are "on the precipice of a clusterfuck." I hope that isn't a premonition about the series itself.


The broad strokes of the story of John From Cincinnati concerns three generations in a surfing family in Imperial Beach, Calif. Mitch Yost (Bruce Greenwood) was once a superstar until a knee injury ended his career 20 years ago. His son Butchie (Brian Van Holt) "revolutionized surfing" until he became, as Mitch describes him, a "ditch-sleeping, drug-taking shitbird." Butchie has his own teenage son Shaun (Greyson Fletcher) who shows signs of becoming a surfing sensation as well, something that causes a dispute between his grandparents, Mitch and Rebecca DeMornay's Cissy (Yes, believe it or not, DeMornay is playing a grandmother). (As Mitch tells a filmmaker secretly working for Perry's character, he doesn't want his grandson to be "flapping your fins for an audience, letting dipshits define you with numbers so other dipshits can compare you with other numbers.")

Surrounding the Yosts are various characters, whose connections aren't always clear at this point such as O'Neill's addled retired cop, Luke Perry as the man blamed for ruining Butchie's career and turning him to drugs and the soon-to-be-ex-owner of a motel (Willie Garson) and his manager (Luis Guzman) who are about to hand over ownership of the place to a MegaMillions jackpot winner (Matt Winston), who blames his epilepsy over Butchie's taunts about his homosexuality when they were kids.

For Deadwood fans, there are some familiar faces around as well. Jim Beaver has gone from playing the noble Ellsworth to portraying the drug-addled Vietnam Joe. Dayton Callie, once known as Charlie Utter in the Old West, now plays a drug dealer named Ready Freddy. Garret Dillahunt, who played not one but two roles on Deadwood as drunken killer Jack McCall and psychotic Francis Wolcott, gets a more positive role here as Dr. Smith. (For the Deadwood fans suffering from serious withdrawal, it's about 30 minutes into the first episode before you hear someone utter the immortal word "cocksucker.")

Of course, the oddest character of the series give it its title (as well as repeating the phrase that headlines this post). Austin Nichols plays John, a Rain Man-esque character prone to repeating phrases such as "The end is near" and "You should get back in the game, Mitch Yost" as well as presumably being the link to the more mystical aspects of the series. Among these elements include the widely shown ability for Mitch to suddenly find himself levitating off the ground, a condition he attributes to a possible brain tumor. When Butchie witnesses the feat, he says, "If that's a brain tumor, where do I sign up?"

There's also Bill's bird Zippy, who seems to have the ability to resurrect itself and, perhaps, others as well. Barry Cunningham (Winston), claims to have visions after his epileptic seizures, including a sense that the motel is haunted, though he admits that his "visions are powerless against the past." He also talks in such odd ways that the wonderfully deadpan Guzman says at one point that he's "getting a little hard to follow." I hope that's not another phrase that's going to prove true about John From Cincinnati as a whole.

After witnessing what appears to be an unexplainable event, Dr. Smith even comes to the Yost household, searching for answers. When he discovers Butchie's drug problem and hears about the various odd happenings that goes on which Butchie wants to attribute to the heroin, Smith asks, "Why would a dope fiend be incapable of paranormal experience?" I don't have an answer for that, but I don't have an answer for lots of questions concerning John From Cincinnati.

The first three episodes didn't turn me off to the point that I don't want to tune in to see what comes next, but it's going to have to get a lot better and more focused quickly to prevent this from being one of HBO's few duds of a series.


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