JOHN FROM CINCINNATI created by David Milch, starring Bruce Greenwood, Rebeccas De Mornay, Brian Van Holt and Luke Perry. Premieres Sunday (June 10) at 10 pm on TMN. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNNN
David Milch writes compelling, morally complex and literate television that is also, in spite of its highbrow and poetic intentions, highly entertaining: Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, the recently deceased revisionist western Deadwood.
Now, Milch has given up the cops and cowboys, but not the cussin' - he's renowned for creating inventive uses for the "c" words (yup, both of 'em).
He's returning to HBO in the prized post-Sopranos-finale time slot with a new dysfunctional family dramedy about surfing, heroin addiction, space aliens and 9/11. One character occasionally levitates. Another can raise the dead. For good measure, there's also a lawyer named Dickstein. And it stars Luke Perry.
Sun-baked? Most definitely. It's hard to imagine a more bizarre premise for a TV series. It also happens to be gnarly as all hell. Dubbed surf noir, John From Cincinnati focuses on the First Family of surfing: prickish patriarch Mitch Yost (Bruce Greenwood), strong-willed yet dispirited wife Cissy (Rebecca De Mornay), deadbeat doper son Butchie (Brian Van Holt) and surf prodigy grandson Shaun (real-life surf phenom Greyson Fletcher).
Austin Nichols plays the title character, a doomsaying dufus who is part Rainman, part Starman, yet hardly any more oddball than anyone else on the slow-burning SoCal show. Oh, yeah, and 90210 pretty boy Perry squints from the shadows as a surfing promoter with dubious intentions and (still) wicked hair.
Now, forget any preconceived notions of John From Cincinnati being like Beach Blanket Bingo or Blue Crush or Baywatch. Hell, forget any notion at all.
There's no way to wrap your grey matter around what this show is like without tuning in.
Yes, there are scenes of surfing - and rather spectacular surfing at that - but for all its beach scenes, I don't recall a single shot of a bikini babe or glistening beefcake in the first three episodes. And there's surf talk, just none of the quasi-mystical Bodhi-speak you'd hear Patrick Swayze spew in Point Break, dude! Which means you don't have to be a surfing fan - or on drugs - to dig the surfing aspect (although it can't hurt).
Of course, this being Milch, the show is mostly about what happens away from the beach, in the dusty cracks and crevices just down the road in characters' minds. Milch, a former addict himself, is much more interested in exploring the flaws and idiosyncrasies of his characters and how they wound themselves and each other than in telling sunshiny Seventh Heaven stories.
Dark and gritty and funny (if anything, John From Cincinnati is more comedy than drama, in much the same way Six Feet Under was funny), Milch's concoction is an oddly textured, oddly paced, oddly moving experiment in small-box storytelling.
It's a trip. And one worth taking. Whether surfers and spacemen can fill the large cement overshoes left by the departing Sopranos, a show that redefined what good television is, well, it's impossible to tell.
It certainly possesses a distinct cultish quality. You'll either get John From Cincinnati or you won't.
But it's hard to say if it will ever attract anything more than a cult audience.
What to watch this week
Thursday, May 31
PIRATE MASTER (Reality) Survivor mastermind Mark Burnett blatantly attempts to ride Johnny Depp's coattails to fame and fortune with this buccaneer-oriented series set on a square-rigger in the Caribbean. Shiver me timbers! 8 pm on CTV
Tuesday, June 5
CANADIAN IDO (Reality) Who won last season's CI title? Seriously. Does anybody remember? The new season premieres tonight with 90 minutes of the best stuff - all the idiots who shouldn't even be allowed to sing in the shower. 8:30 pm on CTV
Thursday, June 7
BOUNCERS (Comedy) An Italian-language sitcom (with English subtitles) about a couple of more-brawn-than-brains nightclub doormen. 9:30 pm on Omni1