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Revisiting the Strange, Occasionally Sublime ‘John From Cincinnati’

The 2007 series is still confounding as plain television—but the surfing is transcendent

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“Do you know what it’s about?” The year is 2007. The setting is The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson. The inquisitor is Ferguson himself. The topic is an imminent new HBO series called John From Cincinnati, a metaphysical surf-noir situation that is already proving difficult to explain or even describe. Ferguson’s guest is series cocreator David Milch, a deified TV guy whose credits run from NYPD Blue to the rhapsodically profane HBO Western Deadwood, which ran from 2004 to 2006 and established him as the thinking man’s prestige-cable impresario. But Cincinnati is a tough sell, very much by design.

The studio audience laughs nervously. “Well, we have mutual friends who speak of a slow unfolding,” Milch begins, by way of explanation. This is unhelpful. “We’re not in any kind of creepy, weird cult or anything,” Ferguson assures the audience, which laughs more nervously.

Milch tries again, sort of. “The answer is no.”

FERGUSON: “You don’t know what it’s about.”

MILCH: “I don’t know what it’s about. I don’t know the bottom line.”

FERGUSON: “Right.”

MILCH: “But, uh. [Long pause.] If god were trying to reach out to us.”

FERGUSON: “Right.”

MILCH: “Uh, and if he felt a certain urgency about it.”

FERGUSON: “Right.”

MILCH: “Umm. [Brief pause.] That’s what it’s about.”

The studio audience’s anxiety is palpable. “And, surfing,” Ferguson prompts. Milch makes a pained, apologetic, yeesh face, and sheepishly concurs: “That’s the bonus!”

John From Cincinnati premiered on HBO on Sunday, June 10, 2007, immediately after the series finale of The Sopranos, which is a Hall of Fame lead-in in terms of audience bewilderment. “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Cut to black. Roll Sopranos credits as a nation of millions blurts out, “What?!” in flabbergasted unison. And then, one of the most gorgeous and arresting title sequences in TV history.

The best thing about giving yourself over to John From Cincinnati is that you get to watch that title sequence 10 times. It’s sumptuous and eerie and joyous. It has a bleached-out vintage feel that evokes exquisite pangs of nostalgia even if you’ve never set foot in southern California. It’s got a killer soundtrack (Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros’s “Johnny Appleseed”). And it makes surfing look like the most beautiful and spiritually fulfilling thing you can possibly do. It is the best thing about the show by orders of magnitude.

Milch was taking a big swing, but with no clear sense of what he was even trying to hit. “What is this show about? It is about itself,” he’d told The New York Times’ David Carr in late 2006. “The smart money is that this show is about a stupid subject.”

It bricked. Reviewers were confused and often appalled: The New Yorker called it “stunningly dull” and lamented that “it’s maddening to see a show this bad from someone so talented,” while The Boston Globe offered the unwelcome poster quote “If Gary Busey were a TV series, he would be John From Cincinnati.” HBO canceled it the day after the season finale—which did not exactly end on a cliff-hanger, as that would imply the presence of an arc that implied the presence of a cliff—and made do with the likes of Big Love, True Blood, and Entourage until Game of Thrones came along to reassert the channel’s dominance.

Deadwood, too, had been abruptly canceled in 2006 after its third season, but die-hard fans were aghast, and demand for some sort of closure was intense and prolonged enough that in July, HBO finally gave the green light to a Deadwood movie. (Milch has struggled in the interim, including with the 2011 HBO horse racing series Luck, canceled after one season due to animal-rights concerns.) No such revival awaits John From Cincinnati, a singularly confounding and frustrating experience that doesn’t qualify as a forgotten classic or anything of the sort. But it doesn’t quite deserve to be forgotten, either. The surfing is not the bonus—it’s the show’s whole, or at least best, reason for being.

Every so often pop culture will attempt to evoke the sacred majesty of surfing, but the results inevitably disappoint. AMC’s new cheerful burnout dramedy Lodge 49, starring Wyatt Russell as a down-and-out surfer adrift in Long Beach, waves in that direction, but as the series begins, Russell’s character is still laid up after a snake bit him in Nicaragua and the ocean is the mystical utopia he can’t or just won’t return to. “Stop being a pussy and come back out with me,” his exasperated friend at the donut shop tells him. “You gotta get back in the water.” The series has its surreal charms, but there’s no guarantee you’ll ever get to see him catch a wave, in part because the series is mostly shot in Georgia.

Whereas John From Cincinnati, cocreated by novelist Kem Nunn, is steeped in its setting of Imperial Beach, a bucolic and romantically shoddy town fewer than 10 miles from Tijuana. The best you can say is that the show leaves you transported; the worst you can say is that the show transports you and then abandons you. There are worst places to be stranded, though, even if—maybe especially if—you’ve never surfed a day in your life.

“I’ll tell you, a lot of people can paddle out there and get that rush,” the predatory would-be manager tells the 14-year-old surfing wunderkind. “But to be able to give them a taste of it just by watching—no, that’s something different. And I never had that. Not like you.”

The manager, Linc Stark, owns a multimillion-dollar surf-gear company called Stinkweed and is played by Luke Perry; the 14-year-old wunderkind, Shaun Yost, is played by real-life pro surfer and skateboarder Greyson Fletcher, one of several John From Cincinnati actors seemingly hired as much for surfing ability as acting ability. At the show’s best, this realism proves invaluable; at its worst, it can feel like you’re stuck with a whole theater troupe of A.J. Sopranos. The brainy and cryptic script, furthermore, does nobody any favors. “The thing itself, that’s the thing,” Linc goes on to tell Shaun, already pushing it metaphysically.

John From Cincinnati is the story of the Yost family, a crumbling surfing dynasty laid low by bitterness and dysfunction. Mitch (Bruce Greenwood) is the crabby patriarch who mysteriously levitates in the season premiere, giving the show its ubiquitous promo image. His son, Butchie (Brian Van Holt), is the ex-wunderkind and heroin addict. Shaun is Butchie’s son, raised by his grandparents, Mitch and Cissy (a wild-eyed Rebecca De Mornay, who is compelled to scream at least 30 percent of her dialogue).

The Yosts, as well as various friends and enemies and hangers-on—including Ed O’Neill as a quirky ex-cop who talks to birds, Emily Rose as a flustered videographer, and real-life surfing royalty Keala Kennelly as an extravagantly pierced surf-shop employee—are visited by John Monad (Austin Nichols), a strange and very explicitly Christlike figure whose arrival triggers all sorts of mystical phenomena. This ranges from Mitch’s levitation to Shaun’s miraculous full recovery from a broken neck suffered in a surfing accident. (One of Ed O’Neill’s birds kisses him.)

Galaxy-brain high jinks ensue, and enrapture a whole second tier of support characters—played by the likes of Luis Guzmán, Matt Winston, and invaluable Deadwood alums Garret Dillahunt and Dayton Callie—who are mostly stuck milling about the grounds of a grimy seaside motel. It took me several episodes to accept that Willie Garson’s lawyer character was actually named “Meyer Dickstein.” I can tell you the precise moment when I bailed on this show during its initial 2007 run, which was a lengthy and baffling scene in Episode 6 in which John starts teleporting around, convenes most of the cast at the motel, and gives a sermon, of sorts. I watched all 10 hours of this show (eventually), and I promise that this makes no more sense to me than it’s gonna make to you.

Rewatching John From Cincinnati in 2018, one immediately striking thing is that the cheerfully oblivious John, who at first mostly just repeats whatever anyone else says to him, is the clear antecedent to Dougie Jones. Yes, the bizarre and enraging Kyle MacLachlan character that delighted and/or terrorized fans of 2017’s Twin Peaks: The Return for weeks on end. John is clearly not from Cincinnati; whether he is god, or a space alien, or mentally unstable, or something else is never, of course, confirmed. Mitch keeps levitating; Shaun keeps falling into and out of danger as the plot, such as it is, dictates. Shaun’s porn-star mother, Tina (Chandra West), shows up and is subjected to much porn star–based abuse, most of it from (a screaming) De Mornay. The single best scene from this series might in fact be this DVD extra of Milch himself, script in hand, standing on the set of the motel sermon and attempting to explain the scene to the actors themselves.

This explanation addresses cave paintings, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and “the capacity of art to reorganize experience, to reorganize our sense of reality.” It’s a much better summary, anyway, than the one Milch gave Craig Ferguson. The cast takes it in as best they can, but on their faces you sense a trace of unease, a stray thought they dare not speak aloud: “I thought this was a surfing show.”

Indeed, John From Cincinnati perks up whenever somebody picks up a board: Butchie, a former teenage champion now miraculously cured of his heroin addiction, eventually gets back in the water, one of the few points when this show gets conventionally sentimental. Semi-climatically, Shaun goes missing overnight, only to reappear in the morning out on the waves, with John surfing right beside him to the triumphant strains of Bob Dylan’s “Series of Dreams.” If nothing else, it’s the show’s most effective unconventionally sentimental moment.

This is hardly the best depiction of surfing in pop culture history. That honor still goes to, you guessed it, Point Break, which captures both surfing’s steep learning curve (think of Keanu Reeves doggedly jumping on his board again and again, right there on the sand) and capacity for cheeseball transcendence. (Think of Patrick Swayze in the movie’s infamously perfect final scene.) John From Cincinnati lacks, to put it mildly, a well-made action flick’s forward motion and coherence. Nor does it quite manage to capture the highbrow lyrical beauty of longtime journalist William Finnegan’s beloved 2015 memoir Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life. But you can sense the show reaching for something on that spectrum, an attempt all the more noble for the fact that it doesn’t manage to actually grasp much of anything. Lodge 49 is a better show—most shows are, really—but it is no kind of surfing show. Milch could never really explain his ambitions, much less achieve them. But as for the pure transcendence of the act of surfing itself, he gives you a taste of it just by watching.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.