“Why would HBO think people would want to watch this?” one blog poster opined on AOL’s TV Squad site nearly a month before the show premiered June 10, on the coattails of “The Sopranos’” finale.
“One department has a pool going as to when HBO is going to pull the plug and not complete the season at all,” read a post on the popular TelevisionWithoutPity.com site way back in February. (The author of the missive claimed to be someone who worked on the “John” set.)
Sure, all shows endure a fair amount of post-pickup/pre-premiere drama and “oh boy is it in big trouble” rumor-mongering. But “John” endured a surprising amount of early carping, especially for an HBO skein with a solid pedigree as the creation of revered dramatist David Milch and cult-fave novelist Kem Nunn. Milch took a beating from many fans of his previous HBO creation “Deadwood,” who felt that he and HBO decided to drive a stake in “Deadwood” prematurely in order to free Milch up to work on “John.” (Given the tone of “Deadwood,” Milch surely couldn’t have been surprised when its hard-core fans were quick to express their hostile, profanity-laden revenge fantasies.)
The cast that Milch and Nunn put together last fall and winter for “John” was undeniably strong: Rebecca De Mornay (pictured above left), Bruce Greenwood (pictured right), Ed O’Neill, Matt Winston, Luke Perry, Luis Guzman, Willie Garson, and up and comers Brian Van Holt and Austin Nichols. But when the pilot script started to make the rounds, there was a lot of head scratching.
If “Deadwood” was a surrealistic Western, then “John from Cincinnati” was a psycho surf-themed family drama, as inter-preted via a bad acid trip. The talk was that it was not just unconventional, it was unbound, merely an indulgent exercise in how obtuse (with curse words) two talented writers could be if given the chance. The consensus opinion seemed to be that HBO had come to the crossroads and was at a loss at where to go next after its storied run of success.
The industry chatter didn’t change much after HBO sent out screeners of the first three “John” segs in late May.
“This is HBO’s follow-up to ‘The Sopranos’?!” the lunchtime crowd at the Grill chirped. In hindsight, there was a surprising amount of tsk-tsking directed at Milch and HBO and a surprising lack of appreciation at least for the spine that it takes to dare to be different – really different. I count myself among those who sprinted in the rush to judgment. I snickered and sneered while watching most of the first seg and didn’t bother with the other two. By the time the premiere came last month, it seemed anti-climactic. The empirical evidence from Nielsen showed the vast majority of the “Sopranos” audience bailed out of “John” in the first 15 minutes of the show, and that on only made us naysayers smug in our certainty that Milch and HBO had misfired, big-time.
Perhaps “John,” with all of its weirdo dialogue, unpleasant characters and scenes that start mid-sentence, wasn’t the right dish to serve to HBO’s America after the dark jolt of the “Sopranos” closer. But maybe it was. Maybe “Oh please!” and “What the hell is this?” is an appropriate first response to “John.” At least it’s in keeping with the spirit of what it seems to be trying to get across to its audience, small as it may be right now.
To my mind, this very, very odd program seems to revolve around the theme of salvation more than anything else. Not re-demption, per se, but mere salvation, or the notion that something cast aside as worthless, or washed up, or corrupt should more often than not be allowed the dignity of a second look. Not necessarily a second chance, but at least a second look.
For the past few weeks, the “John“ screener I’d tossed aside on my desk was nagging at me. I hadn’t given the show a fair shake. I’d already made up my mind when I watched it the first time. And in all candor there was partly a rubbernecking impulse that made me pop it in the machine again last week. Was it really as bad as I remembered?
This time around, “John” has grown on me. So much so that I asked HBO to send me as many more episodes as they could. (I only got up through episode five, the one airing July 8.) As deliberately confusing, contrived and yes, downright gimmicky as the show is in parts, the family at the core, the oh-so-messed-up Yost clan, is strangely compelling. Emphasis on strange.
(In a nutshell, “John” revolves around three generations of a dysfunctional family of legendary surfers who dwell in Imperial Beach, next door to San Diego, on the edge of California-Mexico border. Strange things begin to happen to this already oddball group of people and their assorted friends, protectors and hangers-on when a wavy-haired young man, prone to spouting ominous phrases like “the end is near” and “tomorrow is another day” and looking every inch like Morrissey from the Smiths, pops up out of the weeds one day. Literally.)
The show is by turns impressively well-written and hokey as hell, but at key points in every episode I’ve seen so far it’s saved by the strength of its actors. It took some time but somewhere around episode three I was marveling at how well Brian Van Holt (pictured right) had gotten under the skin of his character, Butchie Yost, the scumbag, heroin-shooting, has-been surf star and son of big Kahuna legend Mitch Yost, a man who’s still grappling with his own semi-trailer full of anger at suffering a career-ending knee injury in the 1980s. Mitch is played mostly with understated rage by Bruce Greenwood, whose character's favorite adjective in this show alternates between “dipshit” and “shitbird.”
It was somewhere around episode four that I realized Rebecca De Mornay gets top billing on the show for a reason. She’s really good and prickly in the role of Mitch’s wife Cissy, who suffers her husband and son’s pain in her own antagonistic, chain-smoking, iron-willed way, steadfastly refusing any introspection into the part the she may play in perpetuating said pain. You buy De Mornay and Greenwood as a couple, especially when she’s razzing him about his self-righteous Eastern mystic mumbo-jumbo that he’s turned to in order to get Zen about the “boo-boo” on his knee, as Cissy puts it. (Oh yeah, as we learn early on in episode one, Mitch all of a sudden finds himself levitating every now and then, rising a few feet off the ground for a few minutes at a time.) And you definitely buy Greenwood and Van Holt as father and son.
Among “John’s” many gambles is the casting of Greyson Fletcher (pictured left) in the pivotal role as Butchie’s 13-year-old surf-savant son Shaun. Fletcher is a real-live surfer (his mother and father, Herbie and Dibi Fletcher, are steeped in the California’s surfing Came-lot and are consulting producers on the show) but heretofore an untrained actor. Somehow, it works. He’s got the eerie-vacant, prematurely world-weary look of pre-teenhood down just right. You buy him as a kid of few words who seeks respite from his family’s angst in the ocean. Heck, even Luke Perry (pictured at right with Nichols) is surprisingly good in his role as the sleazy agent who helped send Butchie down the path to smack addiction and general screw-up-hood by hyping his “bad-boy” image too hard, too fast. And now Perry’s Linc Stark is back in Imperial Beach gunning for Shaun, who’s blessed with the distillation of Mitch and Butchie’s wave-riding DNA.
Ed O’Neill, Luis Guzman, Willie Garson and Garret Dillahunt are also thoroughly entertaining as supporting characters who orbit Planet Yost in various weird ways. Austin Nichols is at best OK in his deliberately bizzaro role as John from….who knows (Cincinnati is merely a guess that Butchie comes up with and it sticks.) After while it’s clear that John has come from the wilds of the jungle separating Imperial Beach from the edge of another world (aka Tijuana) to teach the Yosts a thing or three about them-selves, and bug a whole lot of other people in town while he’s at it.
And there are still more outlying characters that are distracting and downright annoying, particularly Matt Winston as a de-ranged lottery winner who comes back to Imperial Beach seek vengeance for a very mean thing Butchie did to him when they were kids. Even the heroin-dealer-with-the-heart-of-gold played by Dayton Callie wears thin real quick. There’s already plenty going on in this show; more threads and more deep-dark mysteries is something "John" does not need.
But all that said, Milch and his familiar cadre of writers and directors who’ve worked with him on “Deadwood," “NYPD Blue” and other shows managed to cut through the fog by the end of episode four to erect some scaffolding for the basic story at play here, and they’ve definitely pulled way back on some of the non-core characters, thankfully. As always, Milch gives his audience credit for brains. He’s peeling away at the onion in fits and starts, dropping big plot points and character backstory in bits of seemingly banal dialogue and fleeting moments.
It’s clear that we’re heading toward a big revelatory episode that will undoubtedly strive to be profound and conclusive, especially since its looking like episode 10 will have to suffice as both season one and series finale. One of the most intriguing question marks is the Big Point that‘s clearly coming about these people cavorting on one of the Earth’s sharper edges, where the detritus of humanity, and man’s inhumanity, washes up like so much driftwood and sticky tar on the shore.
So now that I’m halfway through “John from Cincinnati,” I’ll for sure stick it out. I can say from experience that it’s best to watch these hourlong journeys into the center of somethingerother in a burst of at least two or three at a time. When I got to the end of episode five the other night, I felt genuinely bummed not to have at least one more to watch before nudging the cat off my lap and retiring for the night. And I had to chuckle at the tune that played over the end credits of episode five. Elvis Costello doing his best Eric Burdon imitation kinda summed it all up nicely.
“Oh lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.”