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What I Watched Last Night

John From Cincinnati is one whacked-out show. Theories abound on the Internet as to just what's going on in this series, HBO's hopeful successor to The Sopranos. The first two episodes were baffling in a Twin Peaks way, which was unexpected and frustrating. It made me miss Deadwood, creator David Milch's previous endeavor, all the more. (I have a friend who's boycotting John From Cincinnati; doubtless he's not the only one hoping a ratings flop will open the door for Milch and HBO to resuscitate Deadwood. I'm convinced even Zippy the parrot couldn't bring that series back to life.)

JFC centers on the Yost family of Imperial Beach, California, three generations of former and future surf legends who have seen better days. Mitch (Bruce Greenwood), the patriarch, blew his knee out years ago. His son Butchie (Brian Van Holt) blew his career on drugs. And now Butchie's teenage son Shaun (Greyson Fletcher) is blowing away the competition, the next superstar surfer in the Yost family. Mitch's wife, Cissy (Rebecca De Mornay), is angry at the world but she's doing her best to help Shaun achieve his dream. Mitch however, doesn't want Shaun to end up like Butchie.

The Yosts are surrounded by an eclectic menagerie, most of whom are shrouded in backstory we've yet to discover. JFC has surfing, drug addiction, levitation, a potentially haunted motel room, resurrection (both human and parrot), greedy agents, a drug-dealing guardian angel, a bubble-wrapped circular stairway, and strange visions shared by multiple characters.

And then there's John, the guy from Cincinnati - the central mystery of the show. Who is this guy? What's his deal? How does he know so much about the Yosts and those around them? Why does he trace a design on the ground with his foot? What is the design, and why do some folks join in the tracing dance with him? I have no idea. We (the characters in the story as well as the audience) are still trying to figure that out, piecing together strange clues, mostly doled out in John's childlike dialog.

John is an enigma. He's unfamiliar with the ways of the world, but he quickly adapts, mimicking the words and actions of those around him. He says things that indicate he's cosmically tapped into the Yosts in some way. He appears in the first scene, standing on the beach watching Mitch surf and utters the cryptic lines, "The end is near. Mitch Yost needs to get back in the game." What game? We don't know. He says that a lot: "The end is near" and "Tomorrow is another day." He also trades questions for statements in a sort of Being There manner. When someone asks him, "Are you feeling good, John?" he'll reply, "I'm feeling good, Butchie."

Is he God? An angel? A messenger? An alien? Psychic? A psychic alien? Your guess is as good as mine.

There's a lot going on in every episode, some of it intentionally confusing, some of it challenging (in the way a program like The Wire forces you to fully engage your brain), and some it is just downright strange. After four episodes, some things are starting to clarify, others not so much. Here's my quick take on the most recent episode, "His Visit: Day Three":

* I'm glad to see Doctor Smith (Garret Dillahunt, who was so great in Deadwood as the psychotic Francis Wolcott) cement his place as a series regular by quitting his job at the hospital and showing up at the Yosts'. After Shaun's medically unexplainable recovery from a neck-breaking surfing accident last week, the Doc's convinced he's witnessed a miracle.

* As with Deadwood, much of the fun in JFC comes from the satellite characters: Luis Guzman as Ramon, the Snug Harbor Motel manager; Dayton Callie as drug dealer Steady Freddy (another standout Deadwood alum); and Ed O'Neill as Bill Jacks, a retired cop and surrogate father to Shaun, who talks to his dead wife and his parrot Zippy in equal measures. By the way, it was a kiss from Zippy in last week's episode that seemed to resurrect Shaun from near death.

* Squabbling spouses Mitch and Cissy remain sour and angry at each other and just about everyone else. As central characters go, they're pretty alienating.

* So far, JFC lacks a dynamic character in the vein of Ian McShane's fantastic Al Swearengen on Deadwood. (Man, wouldn't it be awesome if McShane made an appearance in Imperial Beach?) JFC's bad guy role is filled by Luke Perry, playing smarmy agent Linc Stark. No contest.

* Four episodes in and I'm still having trouble with the formal Milch-style dialog in this environment. This same phraseology was a Deadwood trademark - you either loved it or you hated it. Personally I loved it, but in JFC it's weirdly affected for a show set in contemporary Southern California. At least it seems that way to this California native.

* Have I mentioned levitation? From episode one, Mitch has been seen hovering a foot off the ground. I'm still not sure what that's all about.

* My favorite scene: The episode's close, when Bill shows up in the motel parking lot with a donuts and coffee token of friendship for Steady Freddy - at the behest of his bird. "My bird Zippy conveyed to me, despite the obvious dissimilarities between us, we should become friends," Bill says in classic Milch fashion. The interaction between these two, before, during and after Shaun's "porn star" mother shows up in her red convertible, promises great things to come.

*

Catch up on the What I Watched Last Night archives.



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Posted on July 6, 2007


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