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Dead Tree Alert II: The Annotated John from Cincinnati

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Sean, Butchie and John hit the beach. / HBO photo: John P. Johnson

This week in TIME, I also review John from Cincinnati on HBO (scroll down). Bottom line: don’t get your hopes up.

But even if this David Milch series doesn’t live up to Deadwood, it’s rich and intelligent enough that it isn’t really well-served by “bottom lines” and 200-word reviews. So I thought I’d reprint the review below, annotated with some of the things I had to leave out.

If you have seen the HBO ads, you will be wondering what the deal is with that series about the levitating surfer. After seeing three episodes of John from Cincinnati, a critic can tell you that it is about a levitating surfer. Beyond that, you are on your own.

OK, there’s a bit more I can tell you. There’s also a subplot about a lottery winner buying a shuttered fleabag motel, and a couple plot twists that would be spoilery but, more important, really do nothing to elucidate where this story is going, except that it’s evidently about Something Really Big and Cosmic.

John is the latest from David Milch (Deadwood, NYPD Blue), working with “surf noir” novelist Kem Nunn. It follows the troubled Yost surfing dynasty: Grandpa Mitch (Bruce Greenwood) is a retired ascetic; son Butchie (Brian Van Holt) is a champ turned junkie; grandson Sean (Greyson Fletcher) wants to surf competitively, over Mitch’s objections. They meet John (Austin Nichols), a pompadoured stranger who may be an alien or God (his last name is Monad, a Gnostic reference). Actual, literal miracles begin happening.

The Yost family forms the core of the non-magical part of the story, such as it is: Mitch, who was injured as a pro surfer and now sees competition as a corruption of the pure sport, resists the efforts of surfing manager Linc (Luke Perry) to sign up Sean, partly because Mitch blames Linc for Butchie’s heroin addiction. But there’s also a wide cast of secondary characters, including Luis Guzman as the motel manager, Ed O’Neill (who worked with Milch on Big Apple) as a retired cop and Yost family friend and Deadwood’s Dayton Callie as a drug dealer. These players provide a lot of the story’s color and humor, but while there are a lot of nicely written set pieces, their relation to the main story never really coheres. Also, Rebecca De Mornay plays Mitch’s wife and surfing matriarch Cissy, but she has an especially hard time handling Milch’s mannered dialogue.

Now, I’m willing to let the central mystery be weird and elliptical: John shows up out of nowhere, speaks little English, and declares an interest in seeing Mitch “get back in the game,” while making sudden cryptic predictions and saying that “the end is near.” Also, he can make money and credit cards magically appear from his pocket.

Fine, and actually nicely handled. But as a tradeoff, I need the real-world story to ground all this. The first three episodes simply don’t do the job of convincing me that the question of whether a 13-year-old gets to surf is a compelling plotline, nor does it explain why all the supporting characters have such a reverent, protective attitude toward the Yost family, except that the story needs them to be that way. (There are constant references to the Yosts having “changed the sport” of surfing, though the surfing scenes look pretty much like, well, surfing to me.)

It’s very Twin Peaks at the beach, but Peaks had a murder mystery to ground it. Likewise, Deadwood drew viewers with a ripping genre tale before wowing them with Milch’s funny, profane, philosophical lyricism.

To give John from Cincinnati its due, Milch creates a fascinating new language for it, as he did for Deadwood and NYPD Blue; here, it’s a sort of mix of NYPD Blue’s Mamet-speak with SoCal hippie talk, with some wonderfully grandiose locutions thrown in. For instance, when the lottery winner shows up to annouce that he’s bought the motel (for personal reasons that unfold, sort of, later), he has a pistol strapped to his hip. When the gun attracts attention, he says, deadpan, “I am armed in accordance with the State Lottery Commission’s pamphlet The Challenge of Sudden Wealth, which urges that winners be cautious in the conduct of their business affairs.”

But most important is the language of John. He shows up knowing only a few phrases, e.g., “Some things I know and some things I don’t.” His language develops as he hears other characters speak and parrots their phrases back to them, sometimes out of context, sometimes for who’s-on-first comic effect. (It’s a sign of either the characters’ eccentricity or their implausibility that most of them do not come to the natural conclusion that he is insane or mentally challenged.) He basically becomes a verbal mirror for everyone he meets, and Milch has tremendous fun showing a character whose language is being invented on the fly.

John seduces us with language and atmosphere and writes us an IOU on plot. Its visuals are gorgeous and its mystical glimpses tantalizing, but its transcendence is more asserted than earned. We sinful mortals still want prosaic things like a story. Until John from Cincinnati provides that, it will float two inches above the ground, too beautiful and pure for this earth–or our attention.

This is pretty much as I see it. John is working the same kind of strangers-connected-by-unexplained-events angle as Lost and Heroes, albeit with far, far higher literary ambitions. But it would work far better if, like those shows or Twin Peaks, it took the old-fashioned business of genre storytelling (in this case, the sci-fi Mysterious Stranger) a little more seriously. Instead, it treats its surfing-intrigue story as a necessary annoyance and jumps straight in to the portentious statements and mystical events, hoping that we’ll follow along on the sheer joy of listening to Milch’s music.

And you know, the thing is, I personally will. As frustrated as I was by the first three episodes of John, I’m sure I will watch every episode this season, whether the tale goes anywhere or not. (Which I’m skeptical about: when I attended the show’s TV Press Tour panel this January, I got the distinct impression that none of the actors still had any idea what the hell kind of show they were in.)

But that’s just me, and a few die-hard fans of Difficult TV Drama–and even some of them are Deadwood fans who may spurn this show out of anger that the western was canceled for it. Milch is the kind of artist HBO was born to give free rein to, but I’m worried that he’s written his Finnegans Wake here.