One of the peculiarities of TV-series criticism — especially the kind intended to anticipate the debut of a show — is its goal of assessing something inherently incomplete. Book critics aren’t given only the first four chapters of a new novel, and they don’t stop at page 140 and start typing away (or if they did, they wouldn’t admit it). Film reviewers can’t exit the theater halfway through a film, as much as they might like to. Same with theater critics. But if you’re writing about a single episode of a new TV show — maybe two or three if you’re lucky — you’re essentially weighing in on something that is in all likelihood still in production, a pulsating, evolving thing in the minds of its creators, and aiming for a life of perhaps many, many years, and possibly different artistic directions. The artists are still stirring the pot, in other words, and as a critic in the prelaunch phase it can sometimes feel like you only get to judge the ingredients.
Granted, this is not a circumstance that perplexes the brain if you are dealing with another insipid procedural or machine-pressed sitcom designed for quick recognition, or the comfort of the known. But this conundrum is definitely what I kept coming back to as I watched the first three episodes of John From Cincinnati.
David Milch and Kem Nunn’s mesmerizing and entertainingly confounding new HBO series is built around three generations of a seriously damaged but revered Imperial Beach surfing family. It feels less like a TV show than a net flung across a sea of roiling people and situations, and pulled in slowly to see what else it catches: in this case spirituality, redemption, anger, love, ambition, rapture, eccentricity, folly and even levitation. Its jittery, combative and yet grace-seeking characters are in various states of transition — due to fades from glory, drugs, a wealth of promise or simply wealth — and as you might expect from a collaboration between a brilliant junkie poet like Milch and an apocalyptic SoCal noir-ist author like Nunn, just catching the wave of this crazily enjoyable series looks to be half the reward.
Like Deadwood, that sacred and profane convergence of gutter humanity and civilizing impulses that Milch masterfully forged for the past three years, the pilot of John hints at some of the corollary forces that will mark his concerns this time around: purity and corruption, opportunism and reflection. But for many Deadwood fans, the new show is bitterly seen as That Which Replaced a Needlessly Canceled Masterpiece, and though these Milch fans will undoubtedly tune in to John for a peek, they will surely view it with the same suspicious,steely eyes Al Swearengen cast toward Seth Bullock when he was the stranger in town.
Which is ironic, since a mysterious alien is who the titular John (Austin Nichols) is, appearing out of nowhere in the bluish daybreak tint of a secluded beach where Mexicans can be seen scurrying from the nearby border, and where reclusive surf legend Mitch Yost (Bruce Greenwood) has the early-morning waves to himself. Also, there is a promoter named Linc (Luke Perry), who intends to intercept Mitch as he’s heading back to his station wagon. The gingerly broached topic: representing Mitch’s 13-year-old grandson Shaun (Greyson Fletcher), who intends to make a debut splash at a Huntington Beach contest beginning later that day. Mitch, however — a bitter ex-star who blew out his knee 20 years ago and is leery of anything that disrupts surfing’s ascetic wholeness — blames Linc and his ilk for what happened to his son (Shaun’s father) Butchie (Brian Van Holt): exploitation, drugs, a squashed life. Butchie, we’re told, “changed” surfing, but this revolutionary figure is now a ranting addict squatting at a crumbling motel that has been purchased by a possibly loopy lottery winner (Matt Winston) who has his own scarred, unsettled past with the Yost family.
As for young Shaun, he has support in exploring his genetic windfall from his grandmother — and, with Mitch, co-legal guardian — Cissy (Rebecca De Mornay), a brittle, sun-bleached beauty who runs the Yost-owned surf shop. Cissy has secretly arranged behind Mitch’s back (it’s not a happy marriage, to say the least) to have family friend Bill (Ed O’Neill) — a nervous retired cop — drive Shaun north to the competition.
As dramatic setup, it’s all pretty straightforward. Except when it isn’t, and that’s where the clean-cut hanger-on in windbreaker and white pants comes in. John is Milch and Nunn’s bracingly obtuse take on the surfing groupie as holy fool, who seems to speak in either crypto-religious phrases like “The end is near” and “There are things I know and things I don’t,” or sentences that are parroted assemblages of words and phrases everyone else says to him. Also, his pockets also seem to turn up whatever anybody needs at that moment — exact cash, a cell phone, a platinum credit card — and his enigmatic blankness inevitably makes him a projection for whatever viewpoint others hold dear. To Linc, for example, he must be a competitor for the Yosts’ attentions, while to Butchie he’s a fan eager to be taught by the master, and to Shaun, he’s a silent, smiling friend. I trust Milch and Nunn will make use of John in other ways that are impossible to know yet — and that they may not entirely know themselves — but so far he’s an intriguing combination of mystical change agent and Chauncey Gardener–esque comic relief.
Then there are the miracles, which are, we might assume, a byproduct of John’s presence. Promotional spots for the series have given one away: After his morning surf, standing by his car, Mitch suddenly begins hovering a few inches above the ground. (He’s convinced he has a brain tumor, to which Butchie jokes after witnessing his dad levitate, “If that’s a tumor, where do I sign up?”) Another oddity is the life-death connection between straw-haired, sweetly dispositioned Shaun and Bill’s pet cockatiel Zippy, which plays out in the second episode in a way I shouldn’t reveal, but certainly suggests that Milch and Nunn are keen on exploring how our modern souls react when presented with evidence of the unexplainable.
The big question, though, is, What will a modern television viewership do when presented with the unexplainable in a weekly series? Lost has become a show all too frustrating in its lack of answers, while prime time’s talk-to-the-dead episodics would much rather view the extranatural as a tool for that dreaded concept “closure” than something willfully confusing, bizarre and open ended. David Milch is not one to indulge in the spiritually goopy or popcorn cosmic: John of Arcadia or The Surf Whisperer. But it appears that, through the prism of a superlatively dysfunctional family trapped in their past and divisive about their future, he and Nunn — an acclaimed painter of crumbling social worlds fringed by surfing’s godlike call to conquer nature — are trying to tap into a recognizably turbulent present, a time in which our relationship to the world and each other is as much a grand fumbling asa straight-and-narrow path. And with three episodes, I can say that so far they do it with surprise, wit (as in those spectacularly inverse-constructed Milchian lines of dialogue), an engaging cast (especially O’Neill, Van Holt, De Mornay and, after episode two, Deadwood alum Garret Dillahunt), plus a shaggy, Altmanesque charm.
And if John From Cincinnati is about something else, so be it.?
JOHN FROM CINCINNATI | HBO | Premieres Sun., June 10, 10 p.m.; beginning June 17, airs Sun., 9 p.m.