Judge Clark Douglas thinks naming a show John From Cincinnati should at least get all the people named John in Cincinnati to watch. An idea for a new show: Bob From Los Angeles.
"A-plus for fume control."
Like the title character from the show, John From Cincinnati seemed like a mysterious stranger in the prestigious HBO television lineup. The first ten episodes were aired, viewers seemed baffled, and the show was canceled. That's surprising, considering the show's very fine cast, not to mention the guiding hand of David Milch (who created the brilliant Deadwood). Looking back at what exists of this odd show, what is John From Cincinnati? A strange cult show? A giant failure? An overlooked masterpiece? Let's examine the case.
Facts of the Case
Once upon a time, the Yost family ruled the world of surfing. Mitch Yost (Bruce Greenwood, Capote) was one of the great surfers before surfing hit its popularity peak. Mitch's son, Butchie Yost (Brian Van Holt, House of Wax) was once a genuine surfing superstar but was brought down by drugs and poor choices. Now Butchie just barely gets by on the pity of those around him. Butchie's 12-year-old son, Shaun (Greyson Fletcher), is also an aspiring surfer, though he only receives tentative support from his nervous grandfather and grandmother (Rebecca De Mornay, Lords of Dogtown). The Yost family is slowly but surely falling to pieces, and people are beginning to forget about them.
Things start to change when a seemingly mentally challenged young man named John (Austin Nichols, Glory Road) comes into town. Nobody knows how or why, but after John arrives, strange things start happening. Mitch finds himself levitating off the ground. Shaun suffers a near-fatal injury and makes a miraculous recovery that doctors can't explain. These events trigger a series of changes that are going to shake up the Yost family and all of Imperial Beach, California.
Ten episodes are spread across three discs, each housed in a slim DVD case.
• "His Visit: Day Two": Linc looks to infiltrate the Yost inner circle; Shaun competes in a surf competition, with unexpected results.
• "His Visit: Day Two Continued": Paranormal activity continues to follow the Yosts; Mitch and Cissy take a timeout; John wows Kai.
• "His Visit: Day Four": Bill gets a strange mandate from Zippy; Tina lets the Yosts know she's back in town.
• "His Visit: Day Five": Butchie orchestrates a reunion between Shaun and Tina; John helps Bill and Cissy face up to their pasts.
• "His Visit: Day Seven": An ominous message from John strikes fear for Shaun's safety into the hearts of Imperial Beach denizens.
• "His Visit: Day Eight": Attempting to conjure some courage, Mitch tracks down a reclusive "chemist" in Mexico; Cissy heads up a citywide search team; Bill loses his feathered medium; Palaka's good-luck gift to Freddy ends up with Barry.
• "His Visit: Day Nine": Butchie and Kai wake up to a joyous revelation; Imperial Beach plays host to a makeshift parade organized by a revamped Stinkweed.
This is a show with a lot of noteworthy strengths and weaknesses. The good and bad elements are so evenly balanced that I had a difficult time deciding which to note as evidence and which to include as part of the rebuttal. However, I finally determined that the weaknesses just slightly outweigh the strengths. The reason: the weakest elements are those that happen to be at the very center of the show's attention.
First of all, the Yost family isn't very interesting. They are selfish, unpleasant people whom we greatly dislike spending time with, and the minimal changes they make over the course of the series aren't enough to make us change our minds about them. Rebecca De Mornay gives us a particularly horrid portrayal of the family matriarch, spewing shrill and hateful bile nearly every time she speaks. Well, perhaps it's a good performance. All I know is that the character is over-the-top and unpleasant in every possible way. Nearly as bad is Brian Van Holt's character, Butchie Yost. Butchie is a drug-addled idiot with anger issues who seems incapable of doing anything but swearing, shouting, and being remarkably rude to everyone. Again, Van Holt seems more or less effective, but the character is annoying enough to make the show nearly unwatchable at times. The talented Bruce Greenwood is okay as Mitch, but he is absent for a good chunk of the show.
But let's put the Yost family aside for a moment. What about the title character? John (who may or may not be from Cincinnati) is by turns mysterious and exasperating. At times he offers up small (or large) moments of deep wisdom, and the rest of the time he acts like "a human parrot," mimicking things everyone says, picking up phrases and building a limited vocabulary out of them (think Rain Man). Everyone in the town seems one part fascinated, three parts irritated by John, and I must say that I began to feel the same way after a while. I wanted to give Milch and co-creator Kem Nunn (the author of some well-respected "surf noir" novels) the benefit of the doubt, but too often it just seems like they're spinning around in circles, throwing out mystical red herrings until they figure out what exactly they want to do with John.
The special features here don't really offer very much enlightenment. Audio commentaries by Milch on the first and last episode of the series are very dry and feature a lot of long gaps between statements. On the other hand, we have a 13-minute featurette on Disc Two that features Milch giving the cast and crew a lengthy speech about the meaning of one of the show's more peculiar scenes.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While the meat of the show is very problematic, almost all of the trimmings are quite compelling. The show isn't precisely a "noir," but it sometimes feels like one thanks to the colorful dialogue and offbeat supporting cast. There are so many fascinating smaller individuals in Imperial Beach who add such wonderful flavor to the show. These characters don't do a whole lot, mostly they just piddle around and talk about nonsensical things, but the dialogue and acting during these scenes is engaging enough to carry the show.
Willie Garson (Sex and the City) and Luis Guzman (Carlito's Way) play a couple of employees of a local apartment complex being run by an eccentric new owner (Matt Winston, Little Miss Sunshine). Jim Beaver (Deadwood) and Ed O'Neill (Married With Children) play a pair of baffled ex-Vietnam vets who are deeply disturbed by John's behavior. Paul Ben-Victor (The Invisible Man) and Dayton Callie (Deadwood) are a pair of rugged-yet-sweet criminals. Garrett Dillahunt (No Country for Old Men) plays the amazed young doctor who watched Shaun recover in the hospital. Even Luke Perry (Beverly Hills, 90210) is pretty engaging as the primary villain of the show. All these characters, and other, even more obscure ones, add a whole lot to the show.
Combine the memorable and offbeat cast members with a very strong sense of location, and you have a show that. during its stronger moments, superficially resembles the superior Twin Peaks . Using a series of locations over and over again, we get a feel for where everything is in relation to everything else. The solid DVD transfer also nicely conveys the show's pleasant color scheme, which mixes luminous shades of brown with lots of gentle, low-key pastels. Sound quality is good too, though this show rarely attempts anything that will give your sound system a workout.
A strange, fascinating, mystifying, and frustrating program all wrapped up into one carefully packaged mess, John From Cincinnati certainly wins some points in the originality department. Who knows where it could have gone had it been permitted to continue? The answer would undoubtedly prove interesting, but all we are ever likely to have is this rather open-ended season. Viewers with a lot of patience and a sense of adventure may want to take this one on, but considering that there is no more to come may make John From Cincinnati frustrating for those hoping to find some sort of closure after all ten hours of this odd journey. Proceed with caution.
Guilty, but only a small fine will be required, as HBO has all ready punished
the creators enough by canceling a show that needed more time to develop.
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Scales of Justice
• Two Episode Commentaries featuring David Milch
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