TV Review: HBO's 'John' catches a weird wave
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John P. Johnson
Shaun Yost (Greyson Fletcher) and his father Butchie (Brian Van Holt) surf with oddbal newcomer John (Austin Nichols) in HBO's "John From Cincinnati."
One can't help but wonder if writer David Milch has gone completely 'round the bend with his latest creation, HBO's "John From Cincinnati" (10 p.m. Sunday). Milch was the brilliant writer on "NYPD Blue" who teased the demons out of Andy Sipowicz, using his own addictions as inspiration. He created and wrote the profanity-laced HBO Western "Deadwood," a masterpiece of acting and dialogue that made the foulest curses sound almost poetic.
When: 10 p.m. Sunday, HBO.
"John" is odder still. Viewers who tune out of the series premiere, airing after the finale of "The Sopranos" this weekend, can be excused for their impatience with this drama about a clan of Southern California surfers, one of whom levitates a few inches off the ground for no apparent reason, and a blank-slate boy -- the John of the title -- who turns up one day to parrot what those around him say.
The first half-hour of the premiere is strangely disconnected. Even after a confrontation that pulls disparate groups of characters together, "John" still sometimes smacks of weird for weirdness' sake ("Twin Peaks" fans, rejoice!). But after a while, even that sense begins to evaporate and three episodes in, I started to buy into the world Milch has created. I don't understand it, I don't think I even really like it (almost all of the characters are damaged and rather unpleasant), but I am intrigued by it. (Enough to keep watching? We'll see.)
Set in Imperial Beach, Calif., "John" focuses on three generations of the Yost family: Patriarch Mitch (Bruce Greenwood), the guy who levitates, and wife Cissy (Rebecca DeMornay) are legal guardians of 13-year-old surfing prodigy Shaun (Greyson Fletcher) because his father, Butchie (Brian Van Holt), is a drugged-out bum who squats in a hotel that's been recently sold to a lottery winner (Matt Winston).
Others who hover around the family include ex-cop Bill (Ed O'Neill), owner of a bird that can restore life to the brain dead; a stereotypically haunted Vietnam Vet (Jim Beaver) and surf entrepreneur Linc (Luke Perry), who, with the help of associate Cass (Emily Rose), is trying to sign Shaun to a surfing contract.
Into this mix wanders John (Austin Nichols), who claims in episode two to be from Cincinnati, which seems unlikely. John tells anyone who will listen that "The end is near" and encourages others to "See God," but mostly he just repeats the words, intonations and gestures of those around him, who speculate that he's either mentally challenged or an otherworldly alien of the naive, innocent variety.
Milch partnered with "surf noir" novelist Kem Nunn to create "John," but the dialogue is pure Milch, riddled with profanities of the coarsest nature. "Deadwood" fans will be heartened by the presence of several actors from that series, but they may also be disappointed to discover that, like TV writer Aaron Sorkin, Milch has a habit of using his singular voice and putting it in the mouths of every character. Most of them speak in the same, peculiar Milchian rhythms using a vocabulary long on words that can't be printed here and short on variety.
What does "John" add up to? What's Milch trying to say? Beats me. At a January press conference, he alluded to the notion that "reality is a shifting and elusive condition" and that he was interested in exploring "the margins of things." Early episodes give a hint of the paranormal and spiritual, but so far there's no explanation for Mitch's levitation or John's background.
That leaves us with a strange show that features some impressive surfing scenes, nutty Milchian characters and a lot of head scratching. Viewers up for a challenge won't be disappointed.