John From Cincinnati
Empty10-11 p.m., Sunday, June 10
Much has been written about HBO's need to replace "The Sopranos," "Sex and the City" and other broad-based series of the recent past with new shows that, unlike "The Wire" or even "Entourage," will attract more than a niche following.
But if that is something HBO is worried about, you wouldn't know it from "John From Cincinnati," an intriguing but not entirely satisfying 10-part series that seems as destined to struggle for viewers as did "Carnivale," an odder but more compelling HBO series that eked out only two seasons.
David Milch, the genius behind "Deadwood," has enough creative savvy to bring charm and luster even to a story about an off-putting, dysfunctional multigenerational family steeped in surfing tradition, which is exactly what he does here. Between their boozing, drug abuse, whining and generally ugly dispositions, watching the Yost family is only slightly more enjoyable than a root canal.
Mitch Yost (Bruce Greenwood), a surfing legend, has been bitter since he blew out his knee two decades earlier. His semi-estranged wife, Cissy (Rebecca De Mornay), acts like she hasn't had a good day since the Reagan presidency. Their son, Butchie (Brian Van Holt), also a legendary surfer, traded his board for a syringe. Butchie's son, 13-year-old Shaun (Greyson Fletcher), another budding surf star, is a good kid who speaks mainly in monotone.
This entire clan would be forgettable and unwatchable if not for a cadre of off-center and colorful characters that surround them, including, especially, retired cop Bill (Ed O'Neill) and John (Austin Nichols), a guileless, naive, childlike prophet with several inexplicable powers. (Plaudits also to Willie Garson as Butchie's faithful lawyer and Luis Guzman as caretaker of the seedy motel that is Butchie's home.)
Other aspects of "John" also add to the show's appeal. It is set at Imperial Beach, the last bit of shoreline before the fence that divides the U.S. from Mexico. Mark Tinker, who directed the pilot, takes full advantage of the location, with its unique scenery and social concerns.
Milch and co-creator Kem Nunn use John to tell us something profound about life or, at the very least, to prod us into examining it from a broader perspective. John's message, however, is cryptic and vague and possibly contradictory. He encourages Mitch to "get back in the game" while simultaneously warning that the end is near. If Armageddon was definitely around the corner, Mitch's game would be highly irrelevant.
But John, as played by Nichols, doesn't seem to be a gloom-and-doom prophet. Maybe he means something else. Maybe "the end" in his warning refers to each of our lives. In that case, the series becomes HBO's take on "Touched by an Angel" with John being the agent sent from above to redeem the Yosts, but in a hip, less corny way, of course. Milch, after all, is far too good a storyteller to hit us over the head with the obvious when he can have some fun playing with the message.
So, granted, John is an enigma, though probably not enough of one to sustain interest through all 10 episodes.
Following its premiere, right after the series finale of "The Sopranos," "John" moves to 9 p.m. Sundays.
JOHN FROM CINCINNATI
HBO Entertainment in association with Red Board Prods.
Executive producers: David Milch, Gregg Fienberg, Zvi Howard Rosenman, Mark Tinker
Co-executive producers: Kem Nunn, Peter Spears, Scott Stephens
Consulting producers: Herbie Fletcher, Dibi Fletcher, Bill Clark
Producer: Ted Mann
Creators-teleplay: David Milch, Kem Nunn
Director: Mark Tinker
Directors of photography: Joseph E. Gallagher, Uta Briesewitz
Production designer: Marai Caso
Editor: Martin Nicholson
Music: Johnny Klimek, Reinhold Heil
Casting: Junie Lowry Johnson, Libby Goldstein
Cissy Yost: Rebecca De Mornay
Mitch Yost: Bruce Greenwood
Butchie Yost: Brian Van Holt
Bill: Ed O'Neill
Shaun Yost: Greyson Fletcher
John: Austin Nichols
Meyer Dickstein: Willie Garson
Ramon: Luis Guzman
Kai: Keala Kennelly
Barry Cunningham: Matt Winston