Wildly Enigmatic Case File #7: John From Cincinnati
On the evening of June 10, 2007, a culture-wide roar of agitated confusion swept over this great land. From satellites in outer space, an audible cry of “What the fuck? No, seriously. What the fuck?” could be heard ringing out loudly, followed immediately by, “You’ve got to be shitting us, right? I mean, seriously? What the fuck? You have got to be kidding us with this bullshit!” The cause for this tidal wave of anger and confusion was an exquisitely, maddeningly, insufferably, gloriously enigmatic surfing drama from David Milch, the cultishly revered creator of Deadwood and co-creator of NYPD Blue. John From Cincinnati’s premiere followed the series finale of The Sopranos—no pressure there—which engendered some complicated emotions of its own among loyal viewers.
When John From Cincinnati was greenlit and cast with every recognizable face known to man, Milch had a reputation not just as a peerless television writer and producer, but as a genius, a poet of profanity who went beyond creating shows to creating vast, nuanced, intricate universes. Along with peers David Chase and David Simon, Milch was among those heralded with elevating television to unparalleled heights. Deadwood and its HBO compatriots The Wire and The Sopranos were often trotted out as exhibits A, B, and C in pieces about how television, or more specifically HBO, was churning out art so transcendent it made cinema look like a giant pile of horseshit by comparison. They weren’t just praised for being cinematic; they were being heralded as better than the best films.
Milch was a groundbreaker. Yet despite the accolades thrown its way, Deadwood was cancelled after three expensive seasons, and plans to continue the saga with a pair of television movies never came to fruition, to the disappointment and anger of the show’s devoted fans. HBO wasn’t willing to take a chance on continuing a story that resonated strongly with a small but devoted cadre of viewers, yet it was somewhat puzzlingly willing to take an enormous, even insane chance on a Milch-co-created project unlike anything anyone had ever seen, a television show so preposterous-sounding and peculiar it occupies a subgenre of one: supernatural, metaphysical, spiritual surf comedy-drama-noir.
Milch described his role on John From Cincinnati less as a conventional show-runner, creator, or executive producer than, as he told the New York Times, “an instrument of purposes that I don’t fully understand,” not caring how grand or silly it might sound. “Time will tell whether I am a wing nut or a megalomaniac,” he added. “The difference between a cult and faith is time. I believe that we are a single organism, and that something is at stake in this particular moment.” HBO agreed that something was at stake (in this case, a fuck-ton of its money and reputation), but in a different fashion. Even the artiest and most progressive pay-cable channel could not afford to disregard completely the dictates of commerce. Yet John From Cincinnati ignores the screaming, insatiable demands of commercial television as defiantly as any show this side of Wonder Showzen.
In an interview with Ocean Drive magazine, actor Austin Nichols, who appeared on both Deadwood and John From Cincinnati, described Milch as, “pretty much clinically insane.” He goes on:
“He’s a lunatic. It’s sometimes very difficult to be around him, and other times it's just the greatest thing ever. You have to stay on your toes... It’s all moment to moment. Our production shares the [Alcoholics Anonymous] credo, ‘One day at a time.’ We literally don’t have a plan, we don’t have a shooting schedule, we don’t have a script. We get pages the night before, or we may get to the set and improvise or David will dictate lines to us on the spot. It’s very in the moment. But I’ve always craved spontaneity in my work, so this has been the greatest thing ever.”
That approach is evident in the show itself. At best, John From Cincinnati’s Jean-Luc Godard-like working methods lend the show an exhilarating spontaneity and sense of possibility. It’s quite literally a show where anything can happen. At worst, it feels clumsily put-together on the spot by actors groping to comprehend a master plan even a super-genius like Milch doesn’t seem to understand.
In a move of staggering perversity worthy of John From Cincinnati itself, HBO said “no” to giving Milch more money to continue a proven, beloved property like Deadwood only to spend what I can only imagine was a vast fortune on John From Cincinnati. That’s a little like nixing a Saw sequel in favor of a $300 million experimental film featuring extensive bisexual bestiality. There hadn’t been a surfing show for a long time before John From Cincinnati, yet Milch brought surfing back to television in the unlikeliest possible fashion. But it wasn’t just surfing that made John From Cincinnati such unlikely TV fodder, even for HBO. It was also rather nakedly a show about spirituality, a subject that has never gained much traction on American television. As if all that weren’t enough to scare potential viewers, the show boasted a title seemingly designed to chase away the few viewers it didn’t confuse into a stupor. Who was John From Cincinnati? What was John From Cincinnati? And what kind of a name is John From Cincinnati for a television show about a depressed Southern California surfing town? It’s as if Milch and co-creator/novelist Kem Nunn couldn’t wait for the actual premiere of John From Cincinnati to confuse and disappoint audiences (especially those seeking a surf-world Deadwood), so they figured they’d get a head start with a maddeningly cryptic, counterintuitive title.
It worked. Despite airing after one of the most talked-about and watched pay-cable finales of all time, and possessing a cast that includes Bruce Greenwood, Rebecca De Mornay, Ed O’ Neill, Luke Perry, Luis Guzman, Willie Garson, Jennifer Grey, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, and Howard Hesseman (as a burnout LSD manufacturer, of course), John retained far less than a third of the audience for The Sopranos. And that was in its first week, when anticipation was at its highest and culture-wide confusion about the show had not yet sunk in.
If I were to delineate all of John From Cincinnati’s crowd-alienating perversities, this piece could stretch to book length. So I will merely single out one of the show’s most glaring eccentricities: For a television show about surfers, John From Cincinnati features little in the way of actual surfing. John From Cincinnati’s pilot waits more or less until the end for surfing footage that reminds audiences that central family the Yosts are something more than a miserable, shouty, and aggressively one-note aggregation of has-beens, junkies, and burnouts leading glumly tragic existences in the endless shadow of their former glory. Surfing is the Yosts’ superpower. It’s a place where they can abandon the limitations of a corrupt material world and attain a higher, more profound state of consciousness. So perhaps it’s appropriate that these broken, exhausted, and defeated survivors can only really practice their art form when nobody is watching and the stakes couldn’t be lower.
There is, however, an awful lot of surfing in what almost invariably qualifies as the most accomplished, artful, successful, and moving 87 seconds of every episode: a beautifully downbeat opening-credits sequence that sets up the show’s setting and subject, but more importantly establishes a fragile, sad tone of broken-down grace, of half-mad stumbling for transcendence. This perfect fusion of sound (in this case Joe Strummer And The Mescaleros’ “Johnny Appleseed”) and image goes a long way toward determining the show’s greatest asset: a hard-to-quantify mood of resigned sadness and cosmic resignation. And it’s got soul. That counts for an awful lot. John doesn’t lose the plot so much as angrily throw it away, but it’s always got soul.
At the nucleus of John From Cincinnati lies a pair of beautifully mysterious blanks around whom the cast rotates unsteadily. Professional skateboarder Greyson Fletcher stars as Shaun Yost, a cherubic teenager whose preternatural talent for surfing threatens to resurrect a surfing dynasty that has lain dormant ever since Shaun’s similarly gifted father Butchie (Brian Van Holt) crashed and burned spectacularly after trading surf stardom for a grubby, ramshackle existence as a heroin addict. Butchie is the son of patriarch Mitch Yost (Bruce Greenwood), a legendary surfer who retired from the public eye after nearly losing part of his leg in a surfing accident, much to the chagrin of an adoring and uncomprehending public. Mitch never recovered. He dishonors his gift by surfing only in private, far from the prying eyes of surf fans who never forgot him or stopped mourning his wasted potential. He’s weighed down by an almost unbearable heaviness until one day, for reasons that remain unfathomable to him, he begins to float. Literally. He doesn’t soar; he simply floats a few feet above the ground, trapped in some weird limbo between the material world and the heavens. This is where the mystery begins. It’s not certain where, if ever, it ends.
The Yosts’ glory is irrevocably intertwined with its shame and fall. The characters are stuck in an endless loop where they’re doomed to forever repeat the mistakes of the past, which makes a victim of nearly every one of the show’s characters. Physically and emotionally, Shaun is unfinished and unformed, a sun-baked innocent with a dead-eyed stare and an affectless monotone, yet he’s still oppressed by his family’s legacy of failure and ruin. History repeats itself as both comedy and tragedy.
Mitch and Butchie deal with their personal downfalls in antithetical ways. Mitch leads an ascetic existence. He denies the world the pleasure of watching him surf and himself the rewards that would come with letting others share his gift. Butchie, in sharp contrast, denies himself nothing; after years, even decades of moral rot and physical and emotional decay, he’s become a grubby creature of habit and need, a junkie whose life begins and ends with scoring that next fix. Milch was an obscenely high-functioning heroin addict for three decades, even as he soared to the top of his profession, so John From Cincinnati’s portrayal of the pathological neediness of addiction has a lived-in sense of authenticity.
Butchie wants only to get high, but the fates have other plans for him and the desperate souls around him. Butchie isn’t able to score at all throughout John From Cincinnati—the best he can manage is what Milch refers to as a “beat bag,” a bogus package of smack—yet he never gets dope-sick either, because he is under the care and protection, after a fashion, of the title character and other beautiful blank (Nichols), a tall, handsome enigma with the leanly stylized look and pompadour of a ’50s greaser.
John’s surname is Monad, in what Milch described in a talk at his alma mater Yale—where he was both a student and a teacher who collaborated with writer/mentor Robert Penn Warren, whose ideas and aesthetic would go on to have an enormous influence on Milch, and John From Cincinnati—as an homage to 17th-century philosopher Gottfried Leibniz’s idea of “monads.” I am not nearly smart enough to understand Leibniz’s conception of “monads,” but it seems to refer to an incredibly loose metaphysical conceit involving God and the oneness of everything in the universe.
On the surface, John Monad appears autistic. He seems incapable of making connections and associations on his own. Instead, he engages extensively in echolalia, the ritualistic repetition of words and phrases. In that respect he’s less a window than a mirror that constantly reflects the other characters’ words, thoughts, and ideas back to them in ways that inspire both anger—to the unenlightened, John’s repetition can come off as mocking and bratty—and soulful introspection. Monad doesn’t just possess an unusually strong link to the divine; he is divine, a slick surfing Asperger-y Christ figure seemingly sent to earth by his “father” to reconnect the Yost family to their lost spiritual core. John has no past, no connections, no family beyond his heavenly “father.” He consequently is the only character able to live in the moment and not in a tragic past.
John arrives in the Yosts’ hometown of Imperial Beach, California, and suddenly their grubby, low-rent lives are inundated with unexplained phenomena. Shaun breaks his neck surfing, then is miraculously cured soon after, much to the bewilderment of Dr. Michael Smith (Garret Dillahunt), the neurologist who treats him after his accident. Mitch begins floating periodically. Characters begin having mystical visions and vivid hallucinations.
John From Cincinnati simultaneously occupies two realms: the spiritual and the physical. In the spiritual realm, grace and transcendence are becoming glorious possibilities as John cryptically points the way toward peace and consciousness beyond our rational understanding. In the physical realm, meanwhile, Luke Perry’s cold-blooded surf-gear magnate Linc Stark is looking for a way to monetize both Shaun’s gift and the mysterious circumstances surrounding his resurrection. To that end, Linc has a filmmaker named Cass (Emily Rose) seduce Mitch in an attempt to get Shaun to sign with his company, and lures Shaun’s mother Tina Blake (Chandra West), a pornographic actress and prostitute, back into Shaun and Butchie’s life to nefarious ends.
Ah, but the women in John From Cincinnati aren’t all prostitutes, porn stars, and cynical opportunists willing to use sex to further their careers. There’s also what is referred to more than once, and with ample justification, as the worst ball-buster in universe: Shaun’s mother Cissy (Rebecca De Mornay). While high on LSD decades earlier, Cissy stumbled onto a young masturbating Butchie, fresh off his latest surfing triumph, and finished him off with a handjob. She has consequently never stopped punishing herself or the universe for her transgression by becoming the most insufferable shrew in existence. De Mornay seems afflicted with a terrible case of the Botox shouts: She can’t use her frozen facial muscles to express emotion anymore (Cissy’s emotions run the gamut from anger to rage to blinding fury), so she uses deafening volume and frantic mugging to overcompensate. She’s Imperial Beach’s low-rent answer to Lady Macbeth, and the only character here engaged enough in the world to be angry all the time. (On his wonderful commentary track, Milch says, “I tried to cast as many people who are very identifiable from a single role as a way of mobilizing viewers’ sense of the possible arbitrariness of how we remember things. Oh Rebecca De Mornay. She gave Tom Cruise a handjob or whatever it was. They also starred together in Risky Business!” That might seem disrespectful, but he does later compliment De Mornay for having a great ass, so he’s not all rough edges and leering sexism.
There are a lot of parasites in John, primarily Linc, who is all naked guile and scheming calculation in a frustratingly one-note role and performance. Even more perplexingly, Mark Paul-Gosselaar shows up much later in the series—Milch wasn’t kidding about wanting to cast actors known only for one role—as Linc’s business partner and delivers more or less the exact same one-note, glowering performance as Perry. They’re even costumed to look nearly identical.
The Yosts’ talent and legacy invites avaricious attention of parasites, but it also invites the protectiveness of Ed O’Neill’s Bill Jacks, a retired police officer who has adopted the Yosts as a surrogate family and spends much of his time conducting elaborate, animated, and understandably one-sided conversations with a collection of birds that may or may not have magical powers. Luis Guzman also costars as Ramon, a worker at a fleabag motel that has been purchased by eccentric, gay lottery-winner Barry Cunningham (Matt Winston, in a performance that seeks to transcend the retrograde stereotype of the tragic, melodramatic queen by embodying it to a grotesque degree) with the intention of tearing it down because it was the site of his worst adolescent traumas. Like so many of the show’s characters, Barry is doomed to shadowbox a past that’s more real and tangible to him than anything in his present life. Barry wants to tear the motel down, but surfing lawyer Meyer Dickstein (Willie Garson), who arranged the sale, keeps it intact almost exclusively so that it can provide a home to Butchie, whom Dickstein idolizes and Barry despises for abusing him when they were children. In playing a man who hopes against all hope that all the random weirdness and freaky occurrences will eventually lead to a big payoff, monetarily and otherwise, Guzman comes perilously close to serving as an audience surrogate. I’m not sure that’s something John ultimately wants or needs. John From Cincinnati angrily defies edification. It wants us to get lost and find our own way out.
Nowhere is this more apparent than during an epic monologue in the sixth episode where John Monad issues a series of cryptic proclamations that, in keeping with the show’s modest scope and humble aspirations, connect the characters and the seminal moments where they each went awry with the evolution of mankind and the cultivation of civilization through the millennia.
By this point in my John From Cincinnati journey (it really is a spiritual journey more than a television show), I was exhilaratingly lost. I had stopped trying to understand or figure out the show and given myself over to it completely. That’s ultimately what John From Cincinnati is about: forsaking the rational in favor of the unknowable. John From Cincinnati at times feels more like a waking dream or a visual poem than a conventional TV series. It’s a weirdly alive series of powerful contradictions, a sordid melodrama about life’s most profound questions. It’s less a show divided against itself than a program that embodies its central split between the mind and the body, the spirit and the ego. It’s about abandoning the search for answers and giving in to the divine and unknowable.
To the surprise of no one, John From Cincinnati was cancelled after only one season, though as he reveals on the audio commentary, Milch was thoughtful enough to have John Monad rattle off what would have happened in a second season, had the show miraculously renewed. (Spoiler: A bunch of freaky-ass shit would have happened that would have had people all, “Say what?!!!”) John crashed and burned, Butchie Yost-style, but Milch has proven extraordinarily resilient. In 2011, HBO signed a deal with Milch to produce a series of William Faulkner adaptations. The same year, HBO picked up Luck, a Dustin Hoffman-starring drama centered on the world of horse-racing that’s one of the year’s most eagerly anticipated dramas.
John From Cincinnati is a ferociously imperfect show, a strange, unwieldy combination of pulp fiction and cracked spirituality. Yet it’s gloriously unlike anything that had become before, in television or elsewhere. In the words of A Serious Man (and my colleague Scott Tobias’ fine essay about the superlative last year in film), it invites us to “accept the mystery” of existence while stressing the interconnectedness of all things. Enjoying John From Cincinnati requires a massive leap of faith, a high tolerance for quirkiness and self-indulgence, and an awful lot patience, but its rewards and cockeyed charms are as substantive as they are beguilingly ethereal.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success