Putting the WTF into HBO: ‘John from Cincinnati’ Review

So, the interwebs have been inundated with reviews of HBO’s new show, ‘John from Cincinnati’, that debuted tonight after The Sopranos Finale. Many lament that series creator David Milch exited Deadwood prematurely to helm this series about surfers. Others comment on how the language from his previous series is certainly back in full force. However, a majority of reviews have something in common: this is one screwed up show.

I was therefore heading into last night’s premiere with a certain perspective. On one hand I knew the series had a certain pedigree, and that some reviews were quite positive. On the other, however, was an underlying knowledge of how strange the series was purported to be. And, in the end, I find myself somewhere in between the two extremes presented: I think the series has some level of potential, but that its weirdness just seems that, weird. I don’t see any reason, any direction, within its premise. And yet, I want it to have direction and might follow it until it finds it.

The series centers around a family of surfers…wait, trouble surfers. No. Actually, they’re foul-mouthed, screwed up, law breaking, supernatural surfers. There’s the patriarch, Mitch, a surfer whose career ended before its time thanks to a knee injury. There’s his son, Butchie, whose career ended before its time thanks to a heroin addiction. And then there’s Shaun, Butchie’s son, being taken care of by his grandparents and hoping for a surf career of his own.This probably sounds fairly normal, doesn’t it? Well, except that it’s not normal at all thanks to a few key elements. First off, Mitch? Can levitate off the ground. We get no explanation within the pilot as to why, exactly, this takes place, but Mitch is certainly able to do it. He can’t control it, and thinks it’s a brain tumour until his son witnesses it as well. I still don’t know why he was so convinced it was a brain tumour (Unless he has a medical school background I’m unaware of), but I guess that’s a mildly logical decision on his part.

The other is the arrival of the titular John from Cincinnati, who believes that the end is near and that some things he knows, and some things he doesn’t. John repeats everything that people say, almost verbatim, and his pockets seem almost magical: when a cruising male asks for $50, they hold $50. When Butchie wants $2300, they hold $2300. When Butchie searches for his phone, the pockets hold his phone. When learning how to surf, he need only watch Shaun and he magically becomes a surfer of some quality.

These elements are quite fascinating, and the show has succeeded in making me want to know what the hell they mean. However, I feel as if they are mere distractions from how pedestrian much of the drama is. Cissy (The Matriarch) getting arrested was clichéd and pointless. The arrival of lottery winner and former class geek Billy Cunningham is over the top and bizarre, his insanity overcoming any sense of character we get from him (The actor portraying him, Matt Winston, is best known to me as Scrubs’ dickish resident in the show’s first season). The problem is that just as I am hung up on the supernatural stuff, so too is the show itself: it seems preoccupied with establishing the unreal nature of some of Imperial Beach’s events, while ignoring the fact that the rest of the show needs to come together as well.

The acting is fairly solid as a whole, although I find the young actor portraying Shaun to certainly be showing his lack of experience with some fairly wooden dialogue sequences. Of course, in writing this sentence I realize that I forgot another oddity: Shaun can bring things back to life, just like the star of this fall’s Pushing Daisies. Or is it like that? We don’t really know, because the show doesn’t tell us. And, immediately, I’m distracted from the real purpose of this paragraph by the supernatural mumbo jumbo.

I think that’s why this review is, I swear, positive. While I think that the show is getting caught up in its mystical elements in a way that is almost unhealthy, I think that it’s a decent companion for this surfing world. It is clear that these people are damaged, worried about the dangers that the career can bring. All of that feels quite natural, and I think that it keeps the show afloat.

So, for better or for worse, I believe I’ll be sticking around for some answers for a few weeks yet. I figure with summer months coming onwards, and with Entourage returning next week, checking out HBO’s Sunday lineup sounds like a decent plan. I do not know, however, how long I’ll be patient to have them tie these disparate parts together into a more cohesive whole.

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